Talking Union Blues*
By Fred A. Reed
A fellow contributor to this blog recently sent me a note about the media blacklist used to silence left-wing voices and pens in the USA in the 1950s. Back in those days, ‘media’ meant newspapers; ‘left wing’ meant communists, and the blacklist in question was aimed at the Newspaper Guild.
Well, that was my old union—and my one-way ticket to a blacklist of my own.
Wherein hangs not one, but several interlocking tales in which the author, as trade-union and political agitator takes on Montréal Gazette management, meets a decades’ long lunch companion with whom he forms a friendship for life, and heads the Southam Employees’ ‘Yes’ Committee in the 1980 Québec independence referendum.
The 1970s were a time of intense political and social ferment in Québec. The union movement was powerful and militant, left wing parties sprang into existence, and nationalist demonstrators thronged the streets of Montréal chanting “Le Québec aux québecois” and, in an earlier avatar, “ça va sauter!” The atmosphere was heady, to put it very mildly.
By day I held a job in a suburban library, while by night I attended political meetings and sold would-be revolutionary newspapers at dawn at factory gates.
Precise dates are blurred in the mists of time past, but I believe I went to work at the Gazette in 1976, the year the Parti Québecois won its first election, touching off Great Fear among the city’s English-speaking population. Or some of it, at least.
Not long afterward, the Montreal Newspaper Guild, which represented journalists at the Montreal Star, then locked in a struggle for survival with the Gazette, came calling. Eagerly I signed my card. The Guild quickly won certification and through what may have been a fluke, I was elected chairman of the union’s Gazette unit.
Thus began my great, illustrious and short-lived tenure as a trade unionist and troublemaker. “Fred the Red” they called me and I had no intention of dealing with management from anything but a position of implacable hostility. My job, as I saw it, was to defend the interests of my fellows, I a humble newspaper librarian among the putative labour aristocracy of the newsroom. If that meant ruffling some feathers, so be it.
And so it was to be.
One day, the tall and semi-emaciated man who would be my long-time lunch companion, ran into me in the dingy corridors of the Gazette building. He, as I later learned, had worked at the Sherbrooke Record before migrating to the big town. I began to discuss my union views, but he waved them aside.
“That’s all fine and good,” he would have said. “Now let’s do something about it.”
They once called that a meeting of the minds. Hearts too. David, who had union experience, became my informal emissary to the newsroom. Reporters might not listen to me; to him, they would pay attention. To him, down through the years, I always paid attention.
We did daring things, like confronting management on editorial content. Our union won a key wrongful dismissal grievance, which told the bosses we were serious and knew what we were doing.
Come early 1980, the PQ government had committed to holding a referendum on independence. The vote would take place on May 20 of that year. The campaign was heated and acrimonious: a country’s fate, some claimed, was at stake. A new country, claimed others, was waiting to be born.
It came as no surprise when Gazette management issued an internal memo to its reporters on how to cover the upcoming referendum. Shocking and scandalous it was, and quite in character for a newspaper that saw itself as the voice of English Montreal.
In rapid succession I took a leave-of-absence from my union position to head up the Southam Employees for the ‘Yes’. It included other Gazette employees as well as some who worked for other Southam publications. One of these, a man who went on to a distinguished international career as a human rights advocate, sardonically described us as “southamites.”
Our committee met with a reporter from Le Devoir, the city’s ‘intellectual’ French-language daily, and spilled the beans. Ah, what beans they were. Headlines followed; gnashing of teeth; indignation; outrage and more.
Soon after, my family and I took a short vacation in Southern California, to visit my aging father. Coincidentally, while we were away, a large group of students supporting the Quebec independence movement found their way into the Gazette building and held a noisy—though peaceful—demonstration in the newsroom.
Some accused me of being behind the action. My alibi was airtight.
Shortly thereafter, Gazette management posted armed security guards at all entrances. Employees had to flash IDs. We were under siege.
And as day follows night, my friend David caused to be manufactured and sold at cost one hundred badges that said “Don’t shoot! I only work here.” They were gone in a matter of hours. That punctured management’s puffed up bladder of intimidation.
The ‘Yes’ side lost resoundingly. But the badge incident set the stage for the union’s victorious negotiation of a first collective agreement. One that transformed Gazette workers overnight from among Canada’s worst paid to the best.
About that blacklist: Gazette editor Mark Harrison had indirectly let it be known that I would “never write for this newspaper.” Meanwhile elections were held and a more moderate candidate defeated me for the presidency of the Montreal Newspaper Guild. My friend David was likewise informed that he was no longer welcome. That made two of us.
I had done what I could. It was time to go. Time for something entirely different.
By then I’d mastered written French, so I pitched some ideas to Le Devoir, and later, La Presse, which then enjoyed the city’s top circulation. Where the Gazette had slammed the door, these two publications held it open and showed me in: I wrote long features on Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, Quebec politics and just about anything that interested me.
The Guild? In my last act, the union negotiated a separation agreement, guaranteeing I would never come back, my ultimate bargaining chip being that I would.
I never did.
* With apologies to Pete Seeger