PETER COMPARELLI, R.I.P.

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It has been a terrible year. Bowie and Prince taken far too early. Leonard Cohen leaving us to mourn and light candles against the dark. Long-time friends battling serious health issues. Fake news, the decline of newspapers and the mainstream media, more necessary than ever to hold governments and politicians to account. An antiquated electoral system, an FBI “announcement coup” against Hillary Clinton and Russian hackers delivering a sniveling, bullying, thin-skinned, shallow-thinking prima-donna with the attention span of a child to the White House, while the most adult of U.S. presidents takes his dignified leave. Terrorism in Europe. Aleppo. And now, to cap off this annus horribilis came news of the passing of Peter Comparelli, as lovely a person as there ever was in the tough, crazy world of journalism.

Beyond being a wonderful fellow and someone to enjoy a beer or five with, Peter had a special place in my heart, as the guy who took over my beloved spot on the labour beat at the Vancouver Sun. He thrived on it. A few years later, when I joined the rival Province as that paper’s labour reporter, thirsting to kick the slats out of the Sun’s coverage, I had a hard time harbouring any ill-will towards my good friend, Comparelli.

In fact, one of the best times either of us ever had on the beat was getting to cover the international convention of the Brotherhood of Teamsters in, where else, Las Vegas. We were both sent because it was a good local story. A band of feisty Vancouver dissidents had managed to get elected as delegates, and they were determined to raise the banner of reform against the organized thuggery of the big, bad, beefy Teamsters. If that embarrassed Vancouver’s own Senator Ed Lawson, the smooth, highly-paid presider over the Canadian section of the union and an international vice-president, all the better.

And they did cause a ruckus, most notably when feisty B.C. truck driver Diana Kilmury stood on the convention floor, braving the intimidating howls of several thousand male, mostly large, delegates, and denounced the Teamsters for all the criminal indictments amassed against their leaders. “I didn’t indict you,” Kilmury shouted into the mike. “But if the FBI has issued that many indictments, you must be up to something!” (In fact, then president Roy Williams was eventually sent to prison for his connections to organized crime. His prominent partner at the head table and successor, Jackie Presser, avoided going to jail only by dying of cancer.) But beyond all the great copy, and the fascination of seeing the Teamsters operate up close, with the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa hovering over them, it was a delight just to hang out in Vegas with Peter. We coughed up small amounts of money in the casinos (more by Peter, of course… ), bathed in the neon sun that banished night along the strip and spent our expense money. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Comparelli eventually moved on to cover the legislature. Then, to everyone’s surprise, off he went to sample the delights of life and journalism in Hong Kong, never to return. But, as the spontaneous outpouring of love and affection for Peter on the Pacific Press Facebook page attests, he was not forgotten in Vancouver, even after 30 years away.

Apart from his cracker-jack reporting, he was a union shop steward when those positions mattered, an exceptionally able catcher on the Sun’s competitive softball squad, teaming up with ace pitcher Kelly Evans to win so many games, and an embracer of the good times life had to offer, someone you were always glad to see. Former Sun reporter Debbie Wilson, who had decamped to Mexico, noted how grateful she was when Peter suddenly turned up, amid the ruins of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “He was dispatched by the Sun to cover the disaster and also to find me, as I was (unknown to me) MIA.” With an innate ability to love and attract women, he broke some hearts, it must be owned, until finally meeting his match and marrying Idy. At his wedding reception in Vancouver, I had never seen him happier and more assured that he was doing the right thing.

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He worked for Asiaweek in Hong Kong, was their correspondent in Kuala Lampur, became a skilled editor, then bounced around with other publications and jobs, till it became hard to keep track. But it was in Hong Kong where he was most remembered, a regular at the city’s legendary Foreign Correspondents Club, along with other refugees from the Vancouver Sun who washed up in Hong Kong. Der Hoi-Yin, Jake van der Kamp and the irrepressible Wyng Chow were particularly close. Peter’s last trip back to Hong Kong, from his permanent home in Penang, had been in May. But Wyng Chow had been in touch with him only a few weeks ago. Though a bit less chipper than usual, with his experimental anti-cancer drugs proving difficult to manage, Wyng said Peter talked of returning for yet another reunion. News of his death was a shock. He died, at 63, from lung cancer, surrounded by Idy and his three brothers.

Farewell, Peter. We loved you, man.

His Vancouver Sun obituary is here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/vancouversun/obituary.aspx?n=peter-comparelli&pid=183190212

And this affecting tribute from Tim Noonan of the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/sport/other-sport/article/2057942/editors-office-baseball-field-peter-comparelli-was-man-all-seasons

(photos courtesy of Wyng Chow and Der Hoi-Yin)

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“DADDY, WHAT’S A LABOUR REPORTER?”

ImageThese are distressing times for labour reporting. I was a labour reporter for 19 years, and I had plenty of company. It was always fun at CLC conventions, when the pack of us from across the land would fill an entire row of tables across the front, laugh at the idiosyncrasies of the union leaders we’d come to know so well (“It’s a love-in, you sausage.”), and then fill up more tables at the pub, once our deadlines had been met. Heck, such was the critical mass of news, especially in union-heavy B.C., that when I started at the Vancouver Sun, there were not one but two (!) labour reporters – myself at night and on days, the legendary George Dobie (“Everyone’s trying to find out Ed Lawson’s salary, and a guy from Fruitvale tells us. You’ve got to have your sources in the right place.”). We were on the front page all the time.

Now, as far as I know, there’s not a single full-time labour reporter left in the country’s mainstream media, and hasn’t been for some time. Regular coverage of labour issues is dead as a dodo these daze, drowned out by the deluge of business stories.

CBC’s The Early Edition, for instance, has a weekly “business panel”, a weekly feature on cool businesses, and thrice-daily reports from its Toronto-based business columnist. Oh yes, and a workplace psychologist who dispenses mostly management advice,  and tips on advancing one’s career and getting along in the workplace.  Sensible though she is, I can’t remember her ever advocating that dissatisfied employees join a union.

But CBC is hardly alone in its emphasis on business. Most of the time, in the mainstream media, you’d never know unions exist or serve any kind of valuable function in society.

Yet more than 4.5 million Canadian workers belong to unions, including nearly 600,000 right here in beautiful British Columbia. Sure, there’s coverage of strikes and lockouts, but too often its cursory and superficial, with reporters forced into an unfamiliar field, where all the cards are not always on the bargaining table.

Recent examples: a CBC website headline had teachers threatening strike, rather than school support staff, and a rare, shoddy story by the good folks at Canadian Press highlighted a “promise” by BCTF president Jim Iker that there would be no teachers’ strike in September. Not much of a “promise”, since the teachers have yet to take a strike vote and are scheduled to resume negotiations in early October.

This is not to point fingers but just to illustrate. And yes, there are certainly good stories done on labour, too, many of them by the CBC, and reporters who understand how unions and bargaining work. As a generalization, however, it’s a pretty sad situation. (And by the way, it’s not a matter of advocating for unions. Both sides need to be respected. I really liked the employer guys I dealt with on the beat, because they were pros and accepted that unions had a right to exist.)

I donned my old labour reporter’s cap last week, and weighed in with a look at the state of the unions for the Globe and Mail. (see below). It was great talking to smart people, both union and non-union  and my feature barely touched the surface of all the interesting stuff that’s going on. The stories are out there, folks. Why does the media show such disinterest in them?

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/can-weakened-union-movement-push-back/article14061052