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Reflections from Kamala Rao, outgoing CMG President
By  CMG  •  Posted on  December 20, 2019

Dear fellow CMG members, including incoming and outgoing members of the national executive,

The results of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) national and branch elections were released earlier this month.

Union officers have been elected by fellow members to serve for the next three-year term (2020 through 2022). The new term will begin on January 1, 2020.

As I have not been re-elected, this a good time to thank all of you who have supported me in ways large and small over a rewarding term (2017 through 2019) that is about to end.

I have been motivated by a belief in CMG’s core purpose and in our great potential. And I have appreciated the opportunity to serve. So, thank you for that. And thank you to members who entrusted me with your vote during this past election.

This note is considerably longer than most, because it is meant to function as a kind of term report and handover, a reflection on the election and union democracy, as well as a goodbye.

I’m going to put the most important thing next: A union is as strong as its members’ capacity to unite for our common goals.

Thank you to fellow member Saïda Ouchaou-Ozarowski for this pithy summary of what we need to keep top of mind.

As I have been privileged to serve as CMG National President since 2017 and on CMG’s National Executive Committee (NEC) since 2014, the following are some additional thoughts I want to share, for your consideration.

Appreciations

First, some acknowledgements for those who have served on the CMG National Executive Committee during the past three-year term, 2017 through 2019.

I want to salute Jordanna Lake (National Vice-President), Andrea Sellinger (National Secretary-Treasurer), Jérôme Atangana (National Director, Human Rights and Equity), Nathalie Bastien (National Director, Francophone Issues), Bruce Spence (President, APTN Branch), Terry Pedwell (President, Canadian Press Branch) and Mike Blanchfield (Vice-President, Canadian Press Branch), Jonathan Spence (President, CBC/Radio-Canada Branch), Carmel Smyth (Vice-President, CBC/Radio-Canada Branch), David Horemans (Secretary-Treasurer, CBC/Radio-Canada Branch), Don Genova (President, Freelance Branch), Benjamin Vachet (President, TFO Branch), Cara Stern (Acting President, TVO Branch), and Darren Gonsalves (President, Zoomer Branch), all of whom have served on the CMG national executive this past term.

I also want to extend appreciation and thanks to the following for their service this term: Heather Bakken and Calum McLeod (each of whom served as National Secretary-Treasurer for stints during the first year), Natalie Clancy (former Vice-President, CBC/Radio-Canada Branch) and Gaynette Spafford (former Secretary-Treasurer, CBC/Radio-Canada Branch), Ariane Hamel (former Presidents, TFO Branch), Craig Jasman (former President, Corus Branch), Mary Jo Laforest (former Vice-President, Canadian Press Branch), Gregg Thurlbeck (former President, TVO Branch), Maggie McCaw and Javiera Quintana (former Presidents, VICE Branch), Hyungwon Kang (former President, Thomson Reuters Branch), and Mike Brown (former President, Zoomer Branch). Sincere apologies to anyone I may have overlooked.

I also want to acknowledge former National President Lise Lareau (2000 to 2010) who remains a beacon and indispensable support at CMG. Lise has recently retired from CBC, just this past summer, having returned to the workplace after having served as CMG’s first full-time President.

I’d like to thank Lise for all of her advice and unconditional support, even as we haven’t always agreed on how to approach things. She is understanding and respectful of boundaries, which is a great gift, especially given her stature, experience, and deep and abiding love for our union, CMG.

Lise is a founder and true co-creator of CMG and no one deserves more credit than Lise for the good things that come out of our union. She encouraged us all to be strong, to take responsibility, to be better and to do our best – all without ever harshly criticizing, even if she thought (or knew) we had gotten some things wrong. I salute Lise and thank her for monumental contributions to our union and to the wider labour movement.

Term Report (2017 through 2019, brief)

Along with others over this term, I have worked to refocus our union on actual bargaining-unit members – those covered by a collective agreement and those aspiring towards forming a collective agreement with an employer.

This is the core work of being a strong and successful union local: negotiating and upholding collective agreements, improving working conditions, and adding and expanding bargaining units.

– This term, we have favourably negotiated and ratified ten collective agreements that improve working conditions in CMG bargaining units at AFP, APTN, The Canadian Press, CBC/Radio-Canada, CKOF, Pagemasters North America (PMNA, in both Toronto and Calgary), Thomson Reuters, VICE, and Zoomer.

– We are bargaining three more collective agreements this fall and winter at TFO, TVO, and Buzzfeed, and engaging in another round at both The Canadian Press and VICE.

– Since 2017, we formed new bargaining units at PMNA in Calgary, at BuzzFeed, and with at least one more group of workers that we expect to announce publicly before too long.

During that same time-period, since 2017, CMG has also lost a bargaining unit at Corus, as well as two small ones at the Maritime Broadcasting Service (MBS).

It must be noted as well that several of our bargaining units suffered some losses of members as overall staffing levels fell within some units.

On the pension front, we pushed back against Bill C27, which threatened CBC pensions. The pension plan at TVO is now secured through a stable, well-funded, defined-benefit plan administered by the Ontario Pension Board. And, likewise, the Canadian Press pension plan is now in the process of merging with the CAAT pension plan.

CMG Operations

After many years of fluctuating staffing levels at the Canadian Media Guild, our union is now fully staffed with full-time union staff representatives in every region for every employer group. And I fulfilled my promise to bring back a CMG Staff Representative position based in Atlantic Canada.

The first six months of the term were spent building the new CMG national office that is located at 311 Adelaide St. East in Toronto. The office space had been acquired by CMG the previous year. The work of fully renovating the space, making it workable, and moving our operations there was accomplished in 2017.

I am happy to report that CMG will have fully paid off the mortgage on our new national office by the end of this year, 2019. This opens up spending room within CMG’s yearly operating budget, while securing a home-base for our national office operations going forward.

We have also moved past a legacy of operational deficiency. And there is still a lot to improve.

We have fixed and upgraded CMG’s member information database. We can now reach almost all bargaining-unit members proactively by mail and participate properly in international union elections.

Unfortunately, in early 2017 a high number of unmarked ballots were returned to the NewsGuild-CWA on account of bad addresses. This problem was only flagged after polls had closed and was first reported by observers of the vote count, not by officials at NewsGuild. The extent of the problem was subsequently confirmed as the result of a review I undertook at CMG.

Rerunning the NewsGuild-CWA election was the correct decision under the circumstances. And participation by Canadian Media Guild members was much higher in the recent rerun of the NewsGuild-CWA election than in the previous round.

Additionally, because of these efforts and more accurate reporting to our wider union (CWA and CWA Canada) on our part, CMG now retains more of our dues money and we are able to use that revenue directly in support of CMG members.

Our communication protocols have been modified to better serve a commitment to bilingualism within our union. Now, for example, union correspondence addressed to members of the Guild working in French-language services begins with French.

The NEC also decided to support the FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting’s efforts during the past federal election. I am glad that we did. It has recently been reported that the newly formed government has committed to extend funding that reversed cuts by a previous Conservative government. This is welcome and important news. Now we need to continue the fight for increased public funding for Canada’s public broadcaster.

I also want to note overwhelming support at the 2018 CMG Convention for the introduction of term limits for the position of CMG National President. The CMG President is paid on a full-time basis while holding office. At our Convention in 2018 we resolved that any individual may serve a maximum of three terms as CMG President. I am proud of having moved that motion, which was seconded by Lise Lareau. As a union, we should value the principle of sharing power within the group as well as successorship.

CMG’s National Executive Committee (NEC) has made strategic decisions along the way. A few of these have been difficult for some to fully accept, but all have been based on the best interests of our union.

Independent Freelance Project moving to CWA Canada

In 2014, the Canadian Media Guild embarked on an experiment, allowing independent freelancers, who are not bargaining unit members, not covered by a collective agreement, to buy full union memberships at a rate of about $150 / year (sometimes less). A regular dues-paying CMG bargaining unit member who works full-time contributes about $1000 or so per year, on average, up to a dues-cap of $2500.

Over the years, CMG and CWA have invested greatly in the Independent Freelance Project, spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars in doing so.

Further expansion of the Independent Freelance Project at CMG would have expanded the number of non-bargaining unit members who contribute at a discount rate relative to regular dues-payers. This, at a time when the dues-cap is scheduled to be lifted entirely for regular dues-payers in 2020.

In August 2019, CMG’s national executive decided this was no longer a sustainable or desirable arrangement for CMG and we moved to find the project a safe and soft landing at CWA Canada.

As a union local of our size (5000 bargaining unit members), with our geography (all over Canada), and our number of bargaining units (more than ten), operating in both English and French, CMG had come to recognize that our resources at any given moment are finite and these should be allocated wisely and purposefully.

For instance, if we want to do a better job of reaching out to new bargaining unit members, connecting all bargaining-unit members with our collective agreement rights, and improving and upholding the rights of temporary workers, we need to reckon with priorities.

Our union local is properly focused on traditional bargaining units, the real power and sometimes challenging dynamics of these, including the rights and obligations that attach to formal collective bargaining, along with the other structures and processes that are available within truly unionized environments.

As of January 1, 2020, the Independent Freelance Project will find a home at CWA Canada. Freelancers at CBC/Radio-Canada will remain members of CMG; CBC freelancers are bargaining unit members who are covered by our collective agreement with that employer.

Reflections on the Election and Union Democracy

Democratic elections within member-driven and member-run unions should be regarded as sacrosanct. We, CMG members, honour each other with our participation as voters and as candidates. Even more so when that participation is honest and respectful.

This time around the CMG staff union and its proxies saw fit to meddle in our union’s election. This opportunistic and one-sided intervention marred the process.

CMG’s Election Policy is clear about how our union should regard such matters when it comes to the participation of staff. The policy reads, “CMG employees shall not participate directly in any candidate’s election campaign.”

CMG’s collective agreement with the staff union further stipulates, “No employee of CMG shall interfere or attempt to interfere with the internal operation of the Canadian Media Guild.” This provision was added because this has been a problem, historically.

CMG employs about 15 staffers who are represented via their own staff union (CUPE Local 1281).

Here’s some background. The collective agreement between CMG and the staff union expired at the end of 2016, the end of the previous term. The parties agreed not to bargain in 2017, as a new group of union officials had been elected and we were responsible for a major move of our national offices during the first 6 months of 2017.

By the fall of 2017, the staff were re-forming their union within CUPE, a change from their previous incarnation as a stand-alone union, CMGEU. The staff union then formalized within CUPE 1281 sometime in mid-2018.

Since this round of collective bargaining with the staff union (CUPE 1281) began about a year ago, in December 2018, CMG has proposed making changes and improvements to bring the collective agreement entitlements enjoyed by CMG’s staff more into line with what CMG members enjoy.

This is a matter of egalitarian principle as well as finances. Another principle: no provision would be traded without an equal or better replacement provision somewhere else.

Between December 2018 and the end of June 2019, the parties met on nine different occasions. During that time, CUPE 1281 switched their staff representative, and since September they have switched back their staff representative once again. Bargaining was effectively suspended over the summer as two members of the staff-bargaining team were on medical leaves through to the end of September 2019 and I was required to engage with necessary contingencies in the national office.

The parties then agreed not to schedule any more bargaining dates before the New Year (2020) because it was understood that November and December 2019 would be active times at CMG due to the imminent end of the term and the upcoming CMG election.

Then, in late November, without any bargaining dates scheduled, during CMG’s election campaign, CUPE 1281 launched its opportunistic and one-sided social media campaign, targeting incumbents during CMG’s election period.

And their effort came along with a note threatening to continue the social media campaign unless the staff union’s demands were met immediately.

Here’s an excerpt from an email sent in the midst of the CMG election campaign by the CUPE 1281 staff representative: “The 1281 campaign remains suspended until Friday at noon, but will automatically go live at 12:01pm unless we communicate to the administrator of the Facebook page that we have a tentative agreement that we are prepared to recommend and take back to the members. As discussed, what you have seen thus far is only the beginning. There is lots more content scheduled to be posted and circulated on social media.”

Unlike risking a strike, an “anti-corporate” campaign such as the one run by CUPE 1281 is truly the cheapest and most risk-free of tactics that a union and its members can deploy. It’s the opposite of putting your own livelihoods on the line in support of your demands.

As you may imagine, those of us being targeted by the social media campaign were being placed in a somewhat vulnerable but relatively uncomplicated position. We simply could not agree to use fellow CMG members’ money (union dues), our union’s collective resources, to meet demands that were being made within such a context. The most direct threat was only to our own political futures as union officials and did not involve any actual or prospective work stoppage at CMG.

So, a grouping of the NEC met, discussed, and we agreed as union leaders that we would not incentivize or reward such behaviour by the staff union during a CMG election campaign, regardless of the consequences. We would not bargain with the staff union during the CMG election as they were seemingly trying to influence the outcome and/or use the pressure of the situation to extract what they want. For us to do anything else would have been a corrupt and compromised move.

Given the seeming inability of the parties to consider anything more complex, the last time we communicated with the staff union about bargaining, we proposed to extend the terms of the current collective agreement (still in effect) while also offering wage increases in line with those achieved at CMG’s largest bargaining unit, CBC/Radio-Canada. (1.5% in each of the past three years, and 1.5% per year for the next two years. This would cover 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 and equal a 7.7 % increase over 5 years.)

That proposal was rejected by the staff union’s bargaining team. They countered with 1.5% for the past 3 years and 2.5% for the next two years. This would equal a 9.9% increase over 5 years.

And what do I mean by “proxies” meddling in our union’s election? Here’s one example. A former CMG staffer actively supported and promoted the CUPE 1281 campaign on social media while also actively endorsing and promoting the non-incumbent slate in the CMG election.

During the election campaign, he directly reached out to CMG members and campaigned for one side in the election, leveraging member-contacts he had formed during his tenure as a staffer at CMG. He did so over email and within the CBC building in Toronto; he was allowed access into the CBC building in order to campaign in a one-sided fashion via a family member (CBC employee) of another CMG staffer who is part of the CUPE 1281 campaign.

During the 2016 CMG election campaign, this same former staffer had reached out to me when I was a challenger candidate against the then incumbent. We spoke on the phone and he offered to ‘help’ me win that race. In short order, I told him, ‘no thanks.’ As a member of CMG’s national executive for the previous three years, I knew that CMG had worked long and hard to move away from being a union in which staff would regularly struggle with elected officials (CMG members) for dominance in directing our union’s affairs, and some staff would often enough play us, members, off against each other. The unified position among elected member-officials in 2016 was clear, we could not have staff meddling in CMG elections.

In any case, I can understand how and why many CMG members would feel inclined to feel sympathetic towards the staff union and claims that are attached to CMG staffers. The CMG staffers are placed in positions of trust and many of us rely on them when we need assistance. So, a social media campaign by a staff union can be a potent thing.

It was disappointing to see the CBC/Radio-Canada Branch’s Vancouver Location Unit Executive Committee go a step further and formally weigh in on the matter of CMG bargaining with the staff union and also endorse a slate in the election in that regard, without ever seeking an account of the situation from those of us most directly involved.

Some candidates then took such an endorsement, wore it as a badge and circulated it. This says a great deal about how factionalism is being fostered and exploited, and how some rifts have formed within our union.

These rifts will continue to be a challenge for our union as long as they are sustained.

The incoming National Executive Committee (NEC) and Management Committee will decide if and how they want to protect the integrity of CMG as a member-run union as well as the properness of CMG’s elections going forward.

CMG has an active complaint (grievance) now filed against the staff union in respect to its conduct during the election. The incoming National Executive Committee will decide whether to pursue the grievance and take it to arbitration or, instead, reward and incentivize the aforementioned interference into the future.

However we got here, we must all respect the results of the elections and move forward the best we can as a union.

CMG members participated in the election campaign, many asked sincere and tough questions, made suggestions, weighed our options, and voted. Everyone says they want a better union. That, truly, is the good news.

Now is also a good time to reflect on the quality of our union as a civil organization, as a democratic organization. As with any democratic enterprise, we need to be concerned about the impacts of interference and alienation.

Turnout during the CMG election  was uneven across Location Units and Branches. It may be interesting for members to reflect on why that is, and consider how this may be addressed, or if it needs to be.

Goodbye

In addition to other members of the NEC, past and present, I have valued the opportunity to serve alongside Jonathan Spence, Jordanna Lake, and Andrea Sellinger. It was also an honour to run alongside them during the recent election. I would like to commend them each again for their hard work, dedication, and integrity. They have all made stellar contributions to our union, far too many for me to list here.

And, even as leadership at the national and branch levels matters greatly, CMG is so much more than its elected officers.

Rank-and-file bargaining-unit members, skilled location unit activists, and organic leaders who are active across our union, will make us strong.

A high level of member participation, aimed at achieving our common goals and enforcing our contracts, will make us strong.

Making our union a truly welcoming home for all bargaining-unit members, regardless of our individual jobs and across our full diversity, will make us strong.

Our union can function as a crucial collective voice within our workplaces. As such, that voice should be informed, strategic, and moral – it should also be a unifying force.

Everyday provides another opportunity to pull together and lift each other up, and to make our workplaces and working lives better, together.

We should all hope that Carmel Smyth, Brent Cousland, and Khaleel Mohammed are successful at achieving what they have set out to do at the national level. Same for Kim Trynacity, Bob Sharpe, and Lorne Shapiro, at the CBC/Radio-Canada Branch.

All six of the above will serve on CMG’s next National Executive Committee (NEC).

Candidates implicitly create a sort of contract with voters when we make promises and proposals during contested elections. None of us needs the cynicism that attaches to dashed expectations.

For all who are responsible and engaged union members, it is important to keep doing our part for our union.

There will be many opportunities over the years ahead, and I urge you to seriously consider all of them.

Please also encourage and sincerely support others who may not yet be experiencing a sense of belonging or feel much responsibility for taking on those things which can only be achieved together.

Once more, our union is as strong as our capacity to unite for our common goals.

With best wishes, in solidarity and unity,

Kam

Kamala Rao
National President, Canadian Media Guild (2017-2019)
CWA Canada, NewsGuild-CWA, Local 30213 (Communications Workers of America)

  

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