If you want to know how dedicated employees of the Winnipeg Free Press are to bringing the newspaper to you in its printed and digital forms, look no further than an agreement reached between the company and the union representing its workers.
Employees represented by Unifor have agreed to take an eight per cent wage cut if the company’s financial position changes and it cannot pay all of its bills. The company has agreed not to lay off anyone during the two-year deal.
Both are remarkable commitments. It’s rare for a union to offer any possibility of a pay cut. It’s almost unheard of these days for a news media company to commit to no layoffs.
Why did we do it?
We did it because Free Press ownership, management and Unifor recognized there had to be a better way in an industry beset by declining revenues and struggling to reinvent itself.
We share the same goal — to preserve the role the paper has played since 1872 of informing Winnipeg and Manitoba about itself.
But too often, players in the newspaper industry are at odds instead of united. Owners respond to revenue drops by laying off employees. Staff attack their own employers, saying they are cutting the content that makes people read in the first place.
Last fall, management at the Free Press got together with representatives of Unifor to explore what could be done. We laid out all the financial information that we have, and what we see ahead — choppy waters, to be sure.
To be clear, the Free Press has always operated in the black, and we continue to do so. We report on our results publicly each quarter. We have recorded net losses, though those are the result of writedowns in the value of the company, not operational losses.
We have been changing the business, moving to digital platforms and altering the printed paper as well. But it is hard to move fast enough. Digital revenues don’t replace what has disappeared from print. And we’d have a lot of angry readers if we suddenly stopped delivering a printed paper, which one major Canadian newspaper has already done.
Workers are concerned about their future. All the uncertainty is not good for morale.
In the end, we came up with a true "made in Manitoba" approach to helping the newspaper industry.
Employees have agreed to take a pay cut if the company, in a 12-month period, has not earned at least $800,000 more than needed to pay all its bills, including required debt payments, pension obligations and any other cash outlays.
The pay cut includes me, by the way, and all other managers and staff at our group of six Canstar community newspapers in Winnipeg. The reduction would not apply to anyone earning less than $15 an hour – about $30,000 a year.
The company will issue no involuntary layoff notices during the agreement, which ends June 30, 2019. No dividends will be issued if staff take a pay cut. (None has been issued since 2015.)
Unifor will appoint a union representative to the company’s board of directors. And there will be a permanent committee of union and company representatives to meet monthly to discuss ways to cope and improve the business, whatever comes our way.
I know of no other newspaper company in Canada that has taken this kind of approach. It’s a brave step – some might say foolish.
But we’ve done it because we need a united approach to ensuring the Winnipeg Free Press continues to serve Winnipeg and Manitoba as it has for 145 years.