When workers at Ming Pao, one of Toronto’s largest Chinese daily newspapers, started to unionize this summer things got nasty fast. Management laid off union organizers and openly likened others to Maoists. Seven weeks into the resulting strike, Rhiannon Russell visits the picket line for the inside scoop.
Salaries near minimum wage. Ten vacation days a year regardless of seniority. No job security. No negotiations. This is how workers said they were treated at Ming Pao, one of Toronto’s largest Chinese daily newspapers, until they got fed up and went on strike, seven weeks ago.
The workers, who recently unionized and joined the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, have been on strike since Sept. 21. They want a first contract that regulates their wages, vacation, job security and the length of their workweek.
It all began at the beginning of last summer. Workers voted to create a union and applied to Ontario’s labour board. Representatives from the board met with the workers to finalize the certification process. Paul Morse, president of CEP Local 87-M, says once this happens, major restrictions are placed on their employers. “All these labour laws come into play. You can’t do nasty things to these people. You can’t threaten them. You can’t arbitrarily fire them,” he explains.
He says Ming Pao did these things anyway. Once workers began forming a union he says, things started to get nasty.
“[Ming Pao] started immediately changing internal policies…things that we believed were directly targeted to punish the organizers,” says Morse. The company issued internal bulletins, likening union organizers to Maoists, communists and drug addicts, and published a major editorial on the paper’s front page about questionable union values.
Negotiations continued unsuccessfully, with Ming Pao not budging on any of the union’s requests, which included wage increases, better vacation time, benefits and pensions.
In May, the newspaper laid off seven staff members, citing financial cutbacks. All seven members were union activists, including unit chair Simon Sung, a graphic designer. In July, another three were laid off.
“It had nothing to do with their financial situation,” says Morse. “We’re arguing that they did it to get rid of the union organizers.”
When the company continued to bring nothing new to the bargaining table, workers decided to strike. For over a month, employees have been holding demonstrations and rallies outside the Ming Pao office in Scarborough.
One of Ming Pao’s main competitors, Sing Tao, is owned by Star Media Group and has been unionized since 2001. Simon Sung, who worked at Ming Pao for four years, says his salary was $13.25 per hour. At Sing Tao, an entry-level position comparable to Sung’s as a graphic designer offers $17 per hour. “Our management always claimed that our performance was as good as Sing Tao,” he says. So why not pay them as such, he asks?
Ming Pao’s vacation policies also pale in comparison to those at Sing Pao.
At the former, workers get 10 days a year, with no increase based on seniority, while at the latter, seniority increases vacation time up to five weeks each year, says Sung.
“We have a number of employees who’ve worked here since day one, which means they’ve served the company for 18 years,” says Sung. “We think [Ming Pao] should be respectful of seniority.”
The union is also pushing for better job security to protect its employees. “If the employer can use any reason to get rid of anybody, we don’t think that’s good job security,” Sung says.
The union has applied for first strike arbitration, since it’s been unable to come to an agreement with Ming Pao at the bargaining table. First strike arbitration is for unionized workplaces that don’t yet have a contract in place. In these cases, the Ministry of Labour appoints a mediator to look at both sides’ negotiations, then decides to impose the union’s proposals, the company’s proposals, or a combination of the two as a first contract.
“We applied to the Ministry earlier this month, and there will be hearings to see whether [it] will appoint a mediator,” says Morse. The first hearing was Oct. 31, and the next hearings are scheduled take place from Nov. 14 to 18. He says preliminary issues were discussed with lawyers at the Oct. 31 hearing.
“The hope is that the company comes back to the bargaining table and starts offering some fair negotiations,” Morse says. “Do we want to go through a mediator? No, obviously not.” It would be a simpler process to only involve the union and Ming Pao, and not introduce a third party. But, in this case, it doesn’t seem as though the two parties will come to a resolution together.
“This company is just simply refusing to properly bargain. We’re going nowhere,” says Morse. “Here, you have a pretty corporate, capitalistic mindset to maximize profit at all costs and exploit workers.”
Ming Pao, which re fused to comment on the dispute,is an international media conglomerate based in Hong Kong. The other Canadian issue (which is non-unionized) is in Vancouver.
Some of the Toronto Ming Pao workers went to Hong Kong and held a demonstration outside the newspaper’s headquarters. “It took the message of what we’re trying to achieve in Toronto directly to the heart of Ming Pao,” says Morse.
“It’s a special case, because you have an employer who is actually exploiting members of its own community,” says Morse. “These are new Canadians, often a bit marginalized…they maybe are more willing to put up with horrific working conditions.”
There are a few employees still working during the strike, but management is doing most of the work at the newspaper for the time being.