Lessons from a strike will help the CBC

Canadians experienced a historic event this summer, when their national public broadcaster was effectively silenced from mid-August to mid-October after managers locked out 5,500 on-air, production, technical, and administrative employees.

The lockout was a tactic aimed at weakening the employees' union and extracting deep concessions that would have allowed the hiring of most new employees on temporary contracts. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) management framed the denial of service to the Canadian public as collateral damage in the war for "a much more flexible, agile, nimble corporation."

It turned out to be a hard sell, and one that loyal CBC audiences were unwilling to accept. They lamented the absence of their public broadcaster during the devastation of hurricane Katrina, during the removal of Israeli settlers from Palestinian territories, and during the return of their parliament after the summer break. They missed the everyday connection that CBC programming provides to their communities, their country, and their world. So they signed petitions and wrote letters to the president of the CBC, Prime Minister Paul Martin, and members of parliament, to demand the return of the CBC.

At the same time, locked-out CBC workers in all parts of the country responded to their circumstances with creativity and commitment to their calling. They organized public events; produced alternative broadcasts and podcasts; and developed websites, blogs, and advertisements. In innovative ways CBC workers maintained everyday contact with each other and the Canadian public.

After nearly two decades of budget and program cuts, the lockout of 2005 could have dealt a death blow to the CBC. Instead, the lockout unleashed an outpouring of support for independent and high-quality programming that is free of commercial constraints. In fact, there was such an outcry against the actions by senior management that the team at the top was called before the parliamentary committee responsible for the CBC at the end of October and condemned by members of all four political parties.

The CBC's relationship to the government is complex. It relies upon a set amount of federal funding each year, and its president and board of directors are named by the government. The CBC, however, maintains an arm's-length relationship from the government as a public, and not a state, broadcaster.

Prior to the lockout, the CBC had been low on the country's political radar for many years. That is perhaps why CBC senior managers wrongly assumed that no one would much care when they turned off programming during the "low-ratings" summer season. Employees and CBC audiences managed to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear: They showed that they have more imagination and commitment when it comes to public broadcasting than the CBC's current stewards. And their enthusiasm has caught on among politicians of every political stripe, including a conservative member of Parliament who unexpectedly proclaimed his party's commitment to public broadcasting while holding up a bundle of petitions from his rural Ontario district.

The lockout ended without CBC management winning the major concession it sought. Employees held firm on the principle that a permanent workforce, where ongoing jobs are performed by ongoing employees, is the way to ensure high- quality public broadcasting. Near the end of the lockout, Canada's labour minister, Joe Fontana, told reporters that his Liberal government wants "long-term, permanent jobs for all of our citizens."

CBC employees are back to making programs with a renewed sense of unity. Many are seeking a change to the bottom-line culture that has made the CBC a difficult place to work. They want their commitment to public service respected.

For that to happen, the federal government will have to stop pretending that its arm's-length relationship with the CBC justifies malignant neglect of Canada's largest public cultural institution. Ottawa will need to send out the message that it wants an independent broadcaster that is relevant and responsive to the diversity that is Canada. It will need to devote some additional ongoing funding to undo the damage created by the cuts of the past decade and to make more local programming possible. And it will need to make sure its appointed leaders are up to - and committed to - those tasks.

Lise Lareau is national president of the Canadian Media Guild, the union that represents 5,500 employees at the CBC.

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