Hot! Canadian budget bill contains rude shock for the CBC

TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Government could end up sitting at the management table of the largest news organization in the country.
May 30 2013.   By: Dan Oldfield Karen Wirsig

Only an idiot bites the hand that feeds them. That’s just common sense unless you believe your job requires you to do it . . . if you’re, say, a parliamentary budget officer, an auditor general or a public broadcaster. Then it’s an occupational hazard and you do it even if it means smaller rations.

But what if you end up with a kick in the teeth?

That’s pretty much what’s happening to CBC with the few lines the government sneaked into its latest omnibudget bill, C-60. If this senseless provision passes, the government will sit at the management table of the largest news organization in the country.

“The CBC may think it is a special, independent, Crown agency. This is wrong.” Those are the words of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who is apparently pretending he’s never read the Broadcasting Act. That act defines the arm’s-length relationship between the government and CBC, which will be obliterated if the government can dictate the terms of negotiation with union and non-union employees.

The door will be wide open for narrow partisan interests to trump the mandate of the public broadcaster.

Anyone who has ever been at a bargaining table knows wages and benefits are only part of what gets discussed. A good bargaining team has intimate knowledge of the workplace and uses its time at the table to help make things run better for the good of the organization and the people doing the work. And when everyone involved participates in good faith it can lead to agreements that are good for Canadians.

That’s because workers organized in a union can speak collectively and independently of their employer, who might be focused exclusively on the bottom line or a partisan interest with little regard for the consequences to others. Manufacturing unions have bargained an end to the use of toxic materials that are harmful to workers, but also to neighbours and the environment. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers fought for legislation to create the parental benefits that most working parents can still count on today.

Bill C-60 is not simply about controlling costs by putting a lid on wages and benefits at Crown corporations, including the CBC. This is merely the wedge the government is trying to hammer between “taxpayers” and public workers, making decent wages and benefits a matter of scorn and jealousy instead of a bar of decency to which all people working in Canada could aspire.

C-60 falls squarely in the Conservative strategy to shut down independent voices — and information, analysis and discussion — that cannot be controlled from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Discussions between CBC management and unions over the years have led to provisions in our agreements that strengthen the independence of journalists and creative staff. We have measures to equip employees for the continual changes in the media and to engage with Canadians in ways that weren’t even imagined a decade ago. The Canadian Media Guild has also bargained for measures to boost the hiring of Canadians from under-represented groups to make the public broadcaster better reflect the people it serves.

As George Smith — who sat at the other side of the table from the guild during the 2005 lockout — pointed out in a recent op-ed, relations between CBC management and the guild have never been better. In the face of crippling budget cuts, employees and management have focused on protecting and even expanding services that Canadians have said are important, including investigative reporting and more local service.

Recent examples include the local reporting about campaign finance irregularities that led to the resignation of Conservative cabinet minister and Labrador MP Peter Penashue, who was defeated in a byelection. And CBC’s Go Public first reported on RBC whistleblower Dave Moreau, who showed that the bank was using a federal temporary work visa program to replace Canadian IT workers, countering the government’s message that its economic policy is benefitting Canadians.

Some news is inconvenient or even disruptive for those in power. So be it. No matter what the government says it wants to do with C-60, the opportunities the bill provides for muzzling CBC journalism is a concern for all Canadians.

Dan Oldfield is lead negotiator and Karen Wirsig is an organizer for the Canadian Media Guild, which represents CBC/Radio-Canada employees.

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