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Polkaroo, Paikin and the picket line
"They're just not taking us seriously."
Staff at Ontario's public broadcaster have walked off the job over a strife on wages and contract work — with the local union sending out an urgent SOS on dwindling living conditions and "the future of journalism" at the agency.
Freshly unionized staff rallied before TVO HQ last week with the union entering a legal strike position on Friday. While negotiations continued past zero hour and were "on and off" throughout the weekend, we're told talks broke down. Staff in the building — and those on the job at AMO's annual conference in London — were informed of the decision to pull the plug this morning.
It's the first strike in the broadcaster's history and would disrupt online learning content and halt flagship show The Agenda. The signature current affairs program had been running with taped episodes throughout the summer. The last recorded show is set to air tonight while fresh programming was due to resume.
The sticking points: For staff and the employer, the dispute lies over contract work and wages.
According to the union, TVO had been pushing for staff to waive rights of a permanent job if they've been on contract for over two years since February. It's a non starter, the union says, amid low pay and diminished job security.
"They did this for 'Ontario Hubs,' which was supposed to cover areas that aren't really getting local coverage anymore," said producer and union veep Cara Stern. "We had a few people all around the province. TVO threatened to fire them all immediately unless the union agreed to waive the rights to permanent job. At the time, our staff did that," she explained during a phone interview.
The broadcaster has now changed the definition of a 'Hubs' reporter, relinquishing employees' right of a durable, fulltime gig in the future. "TVO is saying we cannot sign a deal — even if you agree to our wages — unless we agree to sign away the rights of contract staff and make the same agreement we made for Ontario Hubs, but for all educational workers."
"The government tried to have the teachers' unions create precarious contract work for the teachers developing online courses," Stern said. "When they declined, the jobs were moved to TVO. The threat we keep hearing is that if we don't sign the waiver, they'll find another place for these jobs where they can hire on precarious contracts."
Wages are also a sticking point, having been capped as part of the Tories' public sector wage ceiling and falling short of industry standards.
"Their proposal is very low," Stern hashed out, describing pay as not keeping up with surging costs of living. "I used to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment on my own salary. Rent has now gone up so much and our salaries have barely moved. It's been ten years since we've had an increase at or above inflation."
TVO offered wage boosts of seven per cent over three years while the union countered with a thirteen and a half per cent offer, including a pensionable bonus to compensate for those who's wages have been impacted by wage caps. "It's less than most mid level and senior managers got last year," Stern added.
For context: According to the provincial Sunshine List, at least two executives were awarded ten percent salary boosts, in what "shocked" the union.
"Management was pretty mad about the Sunshine List release and made sure the bargaining unit understood that they weren't just given raises but that the financial gains that the people we highlighted got were based on something called 'paid for performance,'" Stern said. "We also asked how they evaluate the bonuses and they wouldn't tell us," she noted.
What TVO is saying: "While it is unfortunate that we have not yet been able to come to a collective bargaining agreement with our CMG employees, TVO Media Education Group remains committed to continuing discussions with CMG and finding a resolution," wrote CEO Jeffrey Orridge. "We are ready to meet with CMG at any time and we remain confident that we can bring this to a resolution that works for both parties."
At the Park: The government is keeping mum — while Oppo was quick to pounce.
"We cannot comment on the specifics of bargaining disputes, strikes or lockouts," a spokesperson for Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said. "A ministry mediator remains available to assist the parties at the bargaining table."
NDP captain Marit Stiles called TVO's journalism "renowned" due to "the workers who make it happen," urging the Ford government to fund the broadcaster so staff "can be paid fairly." Interim Grit leader John Fraser called the public broadcaster "a really important part of this province" while Green captain Mike Schreiner pressed the Tories to "do the right thing and fund TVO like it matters."
Paikin's take: "I'm here because the twenty and thirty year old producers I work with are good people," said TVO's Steve Paikin (who dubbed himself "Steve from Hamilton"). "I've worked here for thirty years, TVO has been around for fifty years. We've never been close to a strike yet it's close right now because the union representing these folks has decided 'enough is enough.'"
What's next: "We, all of us in Ontario, we own the public broadcaster," Stern explained, dwelling on concerns over the agency's future.
"Journalism is a pillar of democracy. I think a lot of people would miss The Agenda if it was off the air and if we didn't have a way to do these long form discussions and accountability interviews that we're known for. We do a lot of really strong debates on topics that a lot of other people would find it very difficult to do because we have a master hat at the table," she added.
"If the public cares about that, then they need to make their voices heard."