Ontario media union admits political bias

Jim Slotek, Local 87-M executive speaks to union members about breaking their policy against political endorsement.
Jim Slotek, Local 87-M executive speaks to union members about breaking their policy against political endorsement.

Union leaders are rallying each other – not so much their membership,
One reason may be that Conservative parties at the provincial and federal level support changes to labour laws that would weaken the power of union leaders.  Currently, Canada is the only western democracy where paying union dues can legally be a mandatory condition of employment and where unions can use funds from mandatory dues for political activism.  In most western democracies, members cannot be compelled to join/pay union dues as a condition of employment and/or their dues cannot be used for political purposes without their consent.

Changing Canadian law to give workers a choice in joining a union and/or paying dues would strengthen the rights of workers.  But, it may mean fewer union members and less revenue from dues.

Certainly, many journalists I know might opt out of a union they feel doesn’t represent their interests.  When Unifor Local 87-M’s executives took a public position against one political party in the current Ontario provincial election, without even consulting its own members, it merely proved this point true.

Less revenue from union dues means smaller union budgets and, possibly, lower salaries for well-paid union executives.

If the law was changed to require member consent to the use of dues revenues for political activism, the rights of workers would again be strengthened.  For the first time ever, members would have a choice.  Of course, some members may opt out of funding the union’s political activity.  That would leave union leaders with fewer dollars to spend supporting political friends or attacking political foes.  It may balance the playing field a little, but a balanced playing field is not what union leaders want, because it would weaken their death grip over over governments.

The changes in law would be good for workers.  Union leaders may have to focus a little more on providing members with value for their money.  But, that can only be a good thing for everyone.
Yesterday, shop the union representing many journalists in Southern Ontario took an “unprecedented move” and issued a news release and video asking its members to vote for anyone “other than Hudak and his circle of Tea Party groupies.”  In doing so, it jeopardizes public trust in an impartial fourth estate, makes effective journalism more difficult and weakens democracy in Canada.

Most journalists I know pride themselves on the objectivity of their work.  Even though many of them have strong political views, they keep those private. They exercise their franchise by voting for the candidates of their choice.  But, they don’t carry political party membership cards, they don’t advertise their allegiances and they don’t donate to campaigns.

Journalists have the legal right to do all those things, of course.  But, most choose not to, in order to maintain their professional objectivity.  That’s important to them.  And, it’s important to society.

“We have strict policies against endorsing candidates or contributing financially to election campaigns” — media union president

A free press is of value to society only if it’s perceived to be largely impartial.  Because it is perceived as such, it enjoys a special place in democracy as the “fourth estate” – so called in the United States because it plays an important role in the balance of power in a democracy where official power is distributed among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.  The fourth estate watches the other three, and reports honestly and impartially on their activities so citizens know what their government is up to.

The special role of media in Canadian society is recognized in law.  The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2010 that courts should not compel journalists to reveal their confidential sources unless there is absolutely no other alternative and the identity of the source is vital to the administration of justice.

Of course, newspapers and other news media regularly endorse political candidates in their editorials during elections.  This is a tradition in the Canadian press, as it is in other democratic countries.  However, there is a very distinct and well-defined difference between “editorial comment” and “news coverage” in Canadian media.  Serious media take that distinction seriously. And, editorials are normally written by editors – not by reporters.

The news release from Unifor Local 87-M, the union representing many southern Ontario journalists, took many of its members by surprise.  And, many whom I know, are not at all happy about it.

Even the union recognizes it is in unchartered territory.  Its own release describes its public position as “an unprecedented move” to break “its traditional silence during elections.”

“We have strict policies against endorsing candidates or contributing financially to election campaigns,” said Paul Morse, president of the union local.

Yet, Morse did not consult with his members before breaking those policies and issuing the news release. When asked why he didn’t consult the members, Morse told The Toronto Star his executive committee had the authority to make the decision itself.

“We’re not going to go out and do a plebiscite for everything we do,” he said.

Again, journalists have the right to choose sides in any election.  But, there are consequences for everything in life.  One consequence of the union taking sides, is the erosion of public confidence in the impartiality of the union’s members – reporters covering the campaign, the government, everything that happens.

Media union has done a disservice to its members, to society and weakened our democracy.

If the journalists’ union admits it’s biased, why would I trust its members to be impartial?  Why would anyone?  And, if the journalists may be biased, how can I trust that they will record and report campaign events accurately, without favor or prejudice? Obviously, I can’t.  Neither can you.

And, if we can’t trust the fourth estate to play an honest-broker role in our democracy, then it has no role at all.  Journalists become mere laborers working in shops, with no special place in society, no special consideration at law.

If they may be biased in their reporting, how can they be trusted to accurately convey information from confidential sources?  If journalists, as a group, cannot be trusted with accuracy, why would courts shield their sources?  Courts will demand to hear evidence from sources directly.  Thus, the confidentiality of sources is jeopardized.  And without promise of confidentiality, who will risk becoming a source of secret information?

The public taking of sides by Unifor Local 87-M was a disservice to its members, who were afforded no input in the decision – yet, will have to wear the tar and feathers of eroded public trust in their impartiality.  And, it was a disservice to our society, because a weakened impartial press means a weakened democracy.