I’ve Tracked Canadian Strikes For The Last Two Years. Here’s What I’ve Learned About Strike News Coverage.
Strike news coverage is inconsistent across the country. This needs to change.
For the last two years, I’ve assigned myself the task of tracking every strike and lockout in Canada through PressProgress’ weekly national labour newsletter, Shift Work. The newsletter is the only place you can find a comprehensive list of Canadian strikes and lockouts. I’ve always wondered why nothing else like it existed. Now I get it.
As it turns out, it’s a bit of a difficult project. But I believe it is a valuable resource for both union and non-union workers to feel connected to and support each other’s struggles across this massive country.
How can you build solidarity if you don’t know where the fights are happening?
Right now, I track strikes and lockouts through Google Alerts, news reports, press releases, social media posts, union newsletters and websites, and occasional direct calls and emails to unions, if I have time. It’s a manual aggregation process, which means I mostly rely on work generated by other people. (We do our own original reporting on strikes and lockouts at PressProgress, but we aren’t big enough to be everywhere — yet!) This means I read a lot of work by reporters and union communications teams across the country.
It’s allowed me to make some general observations about how strikes and lockouts are covered across Canada.
Communications Professionals Outnumber Journalists
A key factor that influences Canadian news coverage is the fact that advertising, marketing and PR professionals outnumber journalists by 9 to 1, according to Statistics Canada. That’s a staggering imbalance to consider when thinking about what shapes any news coverage in the country, including labour issues.
The public relations industry in Canada has been growing exponentially over the last decades — so much so that PR flacks now outnumber journalists 9 to 1. pic.twitter.com/jOzjjltuQ7
— The Breach (@TheBreachMedia) March 3, 2023
This means strike coverage is largely shaped by employer and union communications teams. Big employers can hire expensive PR firms to shape the narrative and deflect or ignore critical questions, while communications resources available to union locals vary significantly, depending on what union they are part of, where they are located, and the scope of the labour dispute. Some union locals do not have any communications staff and will rely on the union’s national resources during labour disputes or will hire temporary communications support on contract.
Unions are also often hesitant to let workers speak directly to the media, which deserves a larger conversation among both journalists and union staff about why workers’ perspectives are so often missing from strike reports.
In many cases, strike coverage becomes a battle of dueling press releases. Strikes are highly charged events and both the union and the employer want to control the narrative to keep public opinion on their side.
This means it can be difficult for reporters to dig deeper even if they want to. This often results in surface level strike coverage.
Journalists are often referred to as writing “the first rough draft of history.” When reporters can’t push through press releases to find deeper stories, it usually means the first draft of labour history won’t be very good.
However, sometimes unions spend a lot of resources documenting their own strike activity. Union staff livestream press conferences and rallies and take thousands of picket line photos. Workers themselves often document their own experiences on social media. While this union and worker generated content isn’t considered journalism, it creates an important trove of historic documentation not provided by the mainstream media.
Ontario Based Labour Coverage
Another key point is that Ontario stories dominate a lot of the mainstream labour coverage in Canada. Ontario is home to nearly 40% of Canada’s total population — and nearly 100,000 non-permanent residents including international students and migrant workers — so it is understandable that the province is a hub of working class struggle.
Many Canadian media conglomerates are also based in Toronto, and following various mergers and acquisitions over the years, they have shut down hundreds of community news outlets across the country. More than ever, Ontario news becomes national news by default, and many Ontario labour struggles have made national and international headlines, like the Ontario education workers’ wildcat strike last year.
Ontario is also home to some of the country’s few reporters dedicated to covering labour: Sara Mojtehedzadeh at the Toronto Star and Vanmala Subramaniam at The Globe and Mail. By specializing in labour, these reporters are not only able to break stories and conduct groundbreaking investigations, but provide deep analysis about these labour issues in Canada. For example, Subramaniam provided regular news coverage of the national PSAC strike and analysis of what the strike meant for Canada’s labour movement.
However, a reporter doesn’t always need a specific title to do good reporting on labour issues or strikes. Journalists at other mainstream outlets like Global News and the Canadian Press provided solid coverage and analysis of the recent Metro grocery strike, for example.
Not All Strikes Covered Equally
While more strike coverage happens in Ontario compared to the rest of the country, there are still labour actions outside Toronto that do not get much attention. Strikes in smaller Ontario communities are usually covered by local outlets with fewer resources and rarely make national headlines.
For example, a motor grader — a large piece of heavy machinery used on farms and construction sites — advanced on a small town picket line in Cochrane, Ontario a few weeks ago. The OPP says they are investigating the incident and thankfully no one was injured. There hasn’t been an update on the incident in over two weeks.
This is often what happens when lower profile strikes or lockouts drag out anywhere in the country — weeks or months can go by without coverage.
Take the Coca-Cola strike in Richmond, BC, for example. 400 Coca-Cola workers have been on strike for over month and there hasn’t been any coverage for the last three weeks except for a food website reporting that Coca-Cola is not available in many local grocery stores.
Notably, the best coverage of the Coca-Cola strike so far has come from The Tyee’s new labour reporter, Zak Vescera, who reported that Coca-Cola was caught breaking labour laws by flying in scab workers from as far as Quebec. If The Tyee did not have a labour reporter, where else would we get this story?
It is also worth noting the Coca-Cola workers were also on strike in 2017. Clearly, there is a bigger story here, but no one is telling it, or after years of media cutbacks, there’s no one to tell it.
When a strike or lockout drags on, it’s easy for news outlets to move on and let the issue fade from the public eye. Because PressProgress has made a point of tracking strikes, our BC reporter Rumneek Johal was the first to break the story of the resolution to the three year Ledcor construction worker strike in BC. Our labour reporting interns Emma Arkell and Phoebe Fuller have also provided coverage for what is currently the longest active strike in Canada at Vancouver’s Radisson Blu hotel.
However, there’s still so much more that could be done.
Independent Digital Media
Many Canadian independent digital media outlets specialize in labour reporting, providing regular investigations, features, and analysis on labour issues you can’t find in the mainstream. When it comes to strike coverage, many independent outlets will often provide explainers of ongoing strikes, angles not covered in other outlets, and analysis of strike trends as they relate to the broader labour movement.
CP Rail claims data showing railway workers’ wages increased 43% over a decade and a half proves they’re already “paid well” enough.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) March 22, 2022
Local, independent labour stories can often create a ripple effect that shapes national news coverage. Mainstream journalists will often rely on reporting from smaller outlets when seeking out background information, news tips, and contacts for their own work.
Independent outlets also provide forums for debates over organizing strategies and tactics from workers, organizers, and labour academics. When the mainstream news cycle has moved on from a dispute, independent publications can take time to look at the big picture.
Improvement Needed Tracking Quebec Strikes
Tracking Quebec strikes has proven challenging as there is a lot of unique strike activity and, as an anglophone, details on union websites and press releases often need to be read through Google Translate.
Instead of launching an indefinite strike, many Quebec unions will instead bank up strike days and use them strategically. For example, a union may bank 10 strike days and strike only one or two days at a time over a couple months. These are called intermittent or sporadic strikes.
This activity is nearly impossible to track via news reports and so I’ve decided to only try to track traditional indefinite strikes. The process for this will be improved in the coming year.
Thankfully, Quebec’s Confederation of National Unions website does a good job of tracking their members’ strike actions , although it does not include every union in the province.
Business Lobby Groups Amplify Employer Perspectives
For the newsletter, I generally like to feature the best examples of labour journalism, which means I don’t rely on right-wing media or op-eds written by business groups. But it is worth mentioning that well-funded business lobby groups will issue press releases and write op-eds that circulate across the country through mainstream media during high profile labour disputes. This is an added advantage many employers have: In addition to hiring their own PR teams, they can rely on massive, well-funded business networks to come to their aid and amplify their perspective in the media.
Right-wing outlets who do not outline their journalistic standards on their websites also provide strike coverage that is usually favourable to the employer and, at times, outright villainizes workers and unions. Unfortunately, these outlets have wide audiences, unknown funding sources, and can influence public perception of labour disputes.
Holding Power to Account
I’ve heard union members occasionally comment that they wish the media would cover more than just strikes when it comes to labour issues. This is a fair comment. After all, only about 30% of workers in Canada are unionized and many have never been on strike in their lives. However, with dwindling media resources, even basic strike coverage is not guaranteed, depending on the circumstance and location.
Strikes and lockouts are news — full stop — and deserve in-depth coverage no matter where they are. These labour disputes often have profound, lasting impacts on workers and their communities. We lose the big picture of what working class life in Canada is like when these stories are not told.
Strikes and lockouts are also flashpoints of class struggle. They are incredibly difficult and require a high level of resolve and bravery from workers. In an age of rapidly rising inequality and concentration of power, it is our responsibility as journalists to hold power to account and document workers who are doing the same.
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