Leadership for tough times
By  CMG  •  Posted on  July 3, 2014

Last week I experienced a seminal moment. As a relatively new (4 years) President, I often wondered how I’d find the “right words” in a critical moment. Union leaders are, after all, elevated volunteers to some extent, borrowed from our real jobs, in my case as a longtime reporter, to take on a temporary “political” role. It can be a challenging hat to wear in tough times, and these are the times we live in, so obvious last week when CBC president Hubert Lacroix announced he was cutting about 1,500 jobs over the next 5 years. Like everyone else in the room I was speechless….but not for long.

We were stunned in part because the cheery sign off on his email announcing the town hall meeting,  “Cheers, Hubert”, and his optimistic opening comment at the meeting that this was a “happy day”  with “good news” signaled better news. At least to me.

The good news part still escapes me, something about being able to balance the budget in 5 years. The bad news? That part I get like a kick to the groin – Hubert Lacroix calmly announced the single most devastating cuts in CBC’s 70-year history: 1,500 jobs gone, to carve out a leaner, more “agile” national broadcaster by 2020. This just two months after announcing major cuts to news, music, local programming, sports …

Thousands of staff across the country processing this information silently, trying to sort out the good from the bad, and assess what part of this was a “happy” development, or had we misheard.

When I realized this was it, I was prompted to stand and ask, “ Instead of cutting jobs, why not fight for more funding? Lacroix’s answer: he “asked and failed, what more could [he] do”? The ghost of a CBC president past flashed before me, (the bold Tony Manera who resigned in protest in the ’90s), and resignations from admirable civil servants such as former head of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh more recently.  “Resign in protest?” I suggested. Scattered applause greeting my suggestion, little to predict the angst that was to come.

Lacroix explained why he didn’t see resigning as an option. A successful corporate lawyer long before his role at CBC, he had no trouble finding the words. The press reported that “The only promising part of Thursday’s CBC meeting was the aggressive pushback by staff”. Meantime, CBC’s president maintained his position telling reporters, “it’s not about job cuts. It’s about a vision. It’s about a financial model that is sustainable”. For weeks, CMG members had been asking the CBC board – of which Lacroix is a member – as a group and individually, to meet, join the union in speaking out for the public broadcaster, or even just hear us out, to no avail.

After the meeting, I was surrounded by colleagues who had itched to say the same things. My favourite, a succinct “Magnificent”.

Then a flurry of tweets, and sound bites:
-“Thank you for your courage and clarity. Don’t waiver”
-“Echoed the sentiment of so many of us”
-“I just want to say Bravo”
-“ … you were great with Hubert/Heather and said everything we’ve been wanting to say as workers.”

More detailed emails followed:
-“If we’re not prepared to make the president and his board a bit uncomfortable now, when will we? Any board that keeps coming back to its shareholders with bad news should be asked to resign.”
-“There is a feeling Hubert and Heather are out of touch, this is not a vision, this is another balance the budget plan…..   hanging on for dear life.”
-“I’m not sure the message of how unhappy staff now are is getting through to them.”
-“Just because they are about to screw us over doesn’t mean we need to help them. “

To a gentle reminder:
-“  many of us have been wondering what the guild has been doing in response to the cuts and today you spoke up.”

And finally the prescient:
-“…These are tough times to be doing what you are doing. Take nothing personally….  “

Messages floated in on an exuberant high in support of what needed to be said.

Or did it?

As in all things political, there are dissenting opinions, and I soon began to hear those, too. Not many, but a sharp voice or two annoyed that I had “embarrassed the CBC President”. One member so upset he started a petition demanding I resign instead of Lacroix; and a cavernous gulf emerged with a longtime colleague who is angry I spoke up.

I would say the job of a union president is to be tough not popular, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. You do have to be popular to be elected. But now I know you also have to be rhinoceros-tough. Even more important, you have to do what you believe to be the right thing, and hope those who don’t agree, at least agree to work together regardless, especially when, to quote an eminent broadcaster in the Toronto Star, “Canada’s public broadcaster is being destroyed”. Tough times call for tough measures, and these are tough times.

Read also:
CBC cutting back evening news in shift towards digital

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carmel Smyth,
National President, Canadian Media Guild

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