Calgary Herald strike chapter from “Leaving Dublin”

My publisher, RMB | Rocky Mountains Books, has kindly agreed to have the entire Calgary Herald strike chapter from “Leaving Dublin” showcased in Frank Moher’s fine online magazine, You can read it by clicking here.

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“Galway Bay”

Here’s a taste of what you missed if you didn’t make it to one of my musical book launches for “Leaving Dublin” earlier this month. I’m telling the audience about a concert tour of Canada that Shay Duffin and I did with Dublin’s Abbey Tavern Singers in the fall of 1967:

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Solidarity forever

Singing "Solidarity Forever" on the Calgary Herald picket line, November 1999, with yours truly on accordion.

I have held memberships in several unions over the course of my working life – writers’ unions, musicians’ unions, broadcasters’ unions – yet I never considered myself a trade unionist until I joined forces with my journalistic colleagues to bring a union into the hitherto non-unionized newsroom of the Calgary Herald.

That organizing initiative began 13 years ago and – though it ultimately ended in defeat – I look back upon it now as one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career. I had worked at the Herald for 24 years as a staff writer, and the union drive gave me a sense of empowerment I had never felt before as an employee. I cover the story in some detail in a chapter of my memoirs, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, just published by the estimable RMB | Rocky Mountain Books. The labour action I describe was kindled in a cauldron of repressed anger and frustration, gleamed for an instant as a flame of hope and shared purpose, and finally was extinguished for reasons beyond the control of those of us who dearly wanted to keep it burning.

It happened during a time, in the late 1990s, when daily newspapers were no longer what they had been for 100 years: a guaranteed source of profit, a licence to print money as we used to say. Now they were printing in red ink, losing advertisers to television, and losing readers – especially younger readers – to the blandishments of the newly arrived World Wide Web.

The Herald came through these industry perils relatively unscathed. Because it is located in one of the more affluent cities in Canada, the newspaper continued to generate profits of between $30 and $40 million annually while its sister papers in the Southam (now, Postmedia) chain were posting total annual losses of more than $150 million. However, the Southam bosses could not sit idly by while several of their holdings suffered financially. So they siphoned profits from the Herald and ordered the paper to cut costs.

It was not long before we felt the direct impact of these cuts in the Herald newsroom. First we had a round of voluntary layoffs. Then we were told that expense accounts and travel budgets were being shaved. Finally – after more layoffs and some changes in corporate ownership and senior Herald management – we were told that our primary purpose was no longer to produce award-winning journalism, but to keep advertisers, government leaders and corporate clients happy. We were now to view ourselves as “content providers.” Before, we had thought of ourselves as the newspaper equivalent of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Now, we were playing in a kazoo band. When we tried to express our concerns to management, we were told they had no interest in listening to us as a group. Dignity went out the window, along with respect. That was the point at which we asked the union – the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) of Canada – for help.

The CEP reps warned us that a first contract would not be easy to obtain. It would take at least 18 months of tough bargaining, and we would have to fight hard for every clause that was not about management rights. But at the end of the day we would have what most major newsrooms in Canada already had: an equitable agreement with a legally mandated grievance procedure and guaranteed rights and protections for the employees.

We never achieved our goal. Weak provincial labour laws – no compulsory first-contract arbitration, no anti-scab legislation – and an unyielding employer combined to keep us from getting a first collective agreement. After an eight-month lockout and strike, our union local was dissolved and most of the 93 journalists who had walked the picket line for the duration opted not to return to work.

Some people had told us we were crazy to take strike action against the company. “You are jumping off a cliff,” they said. But we felt it was the only tool we had left to bring the company to the table to deal with our grievances. There are some battles that you fight, not because you think you can win, but because you know it is the right thing to do. The defenders of the Alamo – who as legend holds opted to stay and fight – could have gotten on their horses and ridden away. We could have done likewise but chose not to. This was our hill to die on.

Though the outcome was dispiriting, the experience for me was gratifying. Through it all, I gained a deeper appreciation for the collective efforts that had led to previous generations of unionized employees obtaining benefits that we now take for granted: an eight-hour day, five-day week, minimum wages, workplace health and safety regulations, unemployment insurance, paid vacations and company pension plans.

The Herald has moved on and so have I. But nobody has told this story before and it is an insider story that demands to be told. That is why I have included it in my memoirs. Maybe it will provide food for thought for – among others – those construction industry leaders who are currently asking the Alberta government to make the province’s already weak labour laws even weaker.

Leaving Dublin is available from and wherever else fine books are sold.

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“Leaving Dublin” Q&A

Q: You’re not particularly well known, yet you’ve published a book of memoirs called Leaving Dublin. Why would people be interested in the memoirs of someone they never heard of?

A: It’s all in the storytelling, don’t you know? Nobody had ever heard of Frank McCourt before he published Angela’s Ashes, yet his book became an instant bestseller.

Q: Do you think your book is going to become an instant bestseller?

A: One lives in hope.

Q: What would it take to become a bestseller?

A: A review in The New York Times would help. So would a review in The Globe and Mail. Or the National Post.

Q: How about a review in the Irish Times?

A: That would help too.

Q: But what if the reviews were negative? Wouldn’t that adversely affect sales?

A: Not necessarily. Yann Martel received some stinging reviews for Beatrice & Virgil, yet that didn’t stop him from ascending to the top of the national bestseller lists in Canada. Pierre Berton used to tell young writers, “Don’t read your reviews. Measure them.” The longer the review, said Berton, the better the chance that readers will want to buy the book.

Q: Have you received negative reviews for any of your previous books?

A: Yes, a couple.

Q: And?

A: The best revenge, as one of my publishers once told me, is to forgive your antagonists, live well, and wait for the sales figures to come in.

Q: You’ve changed the working title of your autobiography a few times. Initially it was called Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Dublin Rogue. Now it’s called Leaving Dublin: Writing my Way from Ireland to Canada. Why the changes?

A: An editor pointed out that I had not, in fact, reinvented myself after I moved to Canada at age 23. I had simply adapted to new opportunities. My publisher suggested I put the word “writing” in the title to indicate that this is what I do.

Q: But you’ve done other things. You’ve been a professional musician. You’ve been a radio announcer.

A: Yes, I was a writer who played music for a living, and a writer who worked in commercial broadcasting. I’ve been a writer since I was a child, when I made up bedtime stories for my younger brother.

Q: Your publisher, RMB ❘ Rocky Mountain Books, puts out books about outdoor adventure, mountain culture, hiking guides, and so on. Where do you fit into that mix? Are you a climber or a hiker?

A: No, not at all. My publisher, Don Gorman, has broadened the scope of his catalogue considerably in recent years. He also publishes books of travel, biography, history and social justice. A very popular recent title, for example, is John Reilly’s Bad Medicine, about crime and punishment on a First Nations reserve where the author served as a provincial court judge.

Q: What prompted you to write this autobiography, and why did you decide to do it now?

A: Because I can still remember. I hoped that in the process of remembering things and writing them down, I might be able to make sense of my life and give it context.

Q: That sounds like a self-serving rationale for writing book of memoirs.

A: Indeed. A book about oneself is – by definition – an exercise in self-absorption. But an autobiography is also about being rooted in a particular time and place. That makes it an exercise in social history, a subject dear to my heart.

Q: You write about growing up in Ireland during the 1940s and 1950s. Why would readers in Canada, the U.S. and other countries be interested in that?

A: They have read about the Celtic Tiger and how it stopped roaring in recent years. I expect they would also be interested in what things were like in suburban Ireland before the cub was born.

Q: Then you write about coming to Canada at age 23. What makes your immigration story different from any other?

A: The fact that I came here not to find employment or escape from a repressive regime, but to get away from an Irish civil service job that was driving me crazy.

Q: Why couldn’t you have looked for another job in Ireland?

A: Because Ireland was driving me crazy too.

Q: You worked as a singer of Irish folk songs after you got to Canada. Couldn’t you have done that in Ireland?

A: As a matter of fact, I did. But there wasn’t enough money in it to justify giving up my day job. Canada gave me the chance to do it full-time.

Q: Then you worked in radio. What was that all about?

A: I wanted to try something different. I knew the manager of the radio station in Prince George and he opened the door.

Q: During your 30 years in the newspaper business you worked at a number of different jobs: police reporter, theatre critic, staff writer for the Calgary Herald’s Sunday magazine, obituary columnist. Why so many changes?

A: They were all great gigs. I enjoyed the challenges and the rewards of every one.

Q: One of the longest chapters in Leaving Dublin is about an eight-month lockout and strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999-2000. Why did you devote so much space to this topic?

A: Because nobody had told the insider story before. This was an unusual dispute in Canadian labour history in the sense that it wasn’t about wages or vacation allowances. It was about a group of journalists who wanted to be treated with dignity and respect.

Q: Do you think people will take issue with your interpretations of certain events, for example your description of what was happening at the Calgary Herald before the journalists started walking a picket line?

A: Undoubtedly. Everyone has his or her version of a story. This is my version.

Q: What other stories are you writing these days?

A: I’m working on the centennial history of the Calgary Public Library, for publication in the spring of 2012.

Leaving Dublin will be available as of Sept. 15, 2011  from and wherever else fine books are sold.

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