By Rachel Sanders
Sandra Phinney knows exactly how difficult it is to negotiate with the owners of the Halifax Chronicle Herald. The Yarmouth-based freelance writer was offered a harsh contract by the company several years ago.
“It was all-rights-grabbing. Including moral rights. And we would be liable if a reader had sued the paper. The onus was entirely on the freelancers. It was just one of those worst-case scenarios in terms of contracts,” Phinney told Story Board during a phone interview this week.
She and a group of other freelancers, including columnists such as Ralph Surette, Silver Donald Cameron and Harry Bruce, tried to schedule a meeting with the company to discuss the contract.
“We thought that we would be able to just talk with the owners. But that wasn’t possible because they simply refused to meet with us,” she says.
Phinney sees striking similarities between that experience and the current labour dispute between the paper’s newsroom staff and its owners.
“We were a smaller group and we were freelancers, but I sense that the same thing has happened with staff. That there’s no desire to have a conversation. And if you can’t communicate with your employer, nothing happens. You can’t create understanding, you just can’t get anywhere,” she says.
Phinney says that she, like many freelancers, stopped writing for the paper over that contract. But about six months ago, Phinney caught wind of a new freelance contract at the Chronicle Herald.
“It was just a very simple two-pager, first time rights, that sort of thing,” she says.
Pleasantly surprised by the new contract, Phinney started pitching to the paper and soon lined up a number of stories to write for them over the coming months.
Now, she says, those stories may never happen. Phinney plans to stop working for the paper when it locks out its employees this Friday.
“We always have options”
Phinney says it was not a difficult decision to withdraw her labour.
“For me it’s about family, meaning we’re a group of journalists and photographers and layout people and fact checkers. It’s all the same profession. We’re telling stories and we’re sharing that with the public,” she says.
“And I think my family’s been hard done by. And I don’t want to support someone who has carried out an injustice. That’s important to me.”
Phinney says she won’t tell other freelancers what to do, but she encourages anyone considering working for the paper during the labour dispute to ask hard questions.
“They’ve been trained as journalists so they need to ask those questions: who, what, why, where, when. And especially the ‘why’. Why is the Chronicle Herald doing this? Why have they not had a dialogue, invited their staff in and had a conversation? Why are they so heavy-handed about this? And what is that going to mean to them down the road? Sure, they may get a contract for four months. And then what?”
She acknowledges that the decision to give up work is painful for freelancers.
“We all have stories we want to write and we have income that we need.”
Over the course of the next year, Phinney estimates, she could have earned up to $6000 from her work with the paper.
“That’s a big hunk of change in my world. So I’m going to miss that. And the stories that I want to tell: they’re not going to see daylight,” she says.
Still, she says, she will find other ways to make up the income she’ll lose.
“I will have to find other ways, other means, other more just, more fair, more equitable employers to work for. And I will. We always have options,” she says.
“Don’t start off by betraying all your principles”
The Halifax Typographical Union, which represents the newsroom employees at the Chronicle Herald, says the company wants to cut wages and pension benefits, lengthen working hours, lay off a third of the staff, and remove a gender parity clause from the contract. On Saturday, unionized staff voted 98.3 percent in favour of strike action.
There have been numerous reports over the past two weeks that freelancers and recent journalism school graduates have been approached by the paper’s owners and offered the opportunity to work anonymously to protect their identities.
Don Genova, president of the Canadian Media Guild’s freelance branch, advises freelance journalists not to participate in any work offered by the Chronicle Herald during the labour dispute.
“It can hurt their reputation in the industry and undermines the attempts by the workers at the Chronicle Herald to achieve a fair settlement at the bargaining table,” he says.
“Many younger freelancers aspire to secure full-time positions at newspapers; by performing scab work, they could be helping to drive down the wages they someday might be counting on to make a living.”
Martin O’Hanlon — president of the Halifax Typographical Union’s parent union, CWA Canada — urges young journalists and freelancers to keep their principles in mind when considering any offer of work from the Chronicle Herald.
“Our message to young journalists considering working as scabs is not that we will identify and shame you, it is that we are fighting for your future so that you can have a decent job and a chance to do quality journalism,” he said in a statement released last week.
“Journalists around the world are being killed for defending their principles and standing up for truth and justice. Anyone who chooses to start a career by abandoning their principles is betraying their colleagues, their profession, and their humanity.”
O’Hanlon says this is the primary message the union wants to send to anyone who’s been offered work by the Herald.
“Our main message is that you should be a decent human being. If you’re going to be a journalist, for God’s sake, don’t start off by betraying all your principles,” he told Story Board.
O’Hanlon says the support of freelancers is critical in the Chronicle Herald staff’s fight for a fair contract. And he points out that supporting the union is of benefit to freelancers, as well.
Rachel Sanders is a freelance writer and the editor of Story Board.