Why was I writing for the Chronicle Herald during the strike?
Seems a pressing question, doesn’t it? But it’s one few people have bothered to ask me.
I can count on one hand the number of folks who’ve contacted me by social media, phone and in person to ask me why I stuck with my column when reporters, photographers and some editors at the Herald went on strike January 22 at midnight. (Anonymous taunts and re-Tweets, I completely ignored. I won’t donate my energy to negativity.)
For anyone who asked me directly and honestly, I took the time and care to respond individually.
The crux of it? I had a written contractual obligation to fulfill my one-column-a-week job. I refused from the get-go to do the work of striking reporters. Which is to say, had I been asked, I would have said no. I was never asked.
I filed my column. No more. No less. Just like I had since January 2010.
I don’t enjoy the protection of the Halifax Typographical Union (HTU). I never had the option of paying dues and becoming a member. The union doesn’t include freelancers. Other unions represent freelancers; none had a horse in this race.
Being non-union has never bothered me. I freelance because I relish the flexibility. One cost of that is not having the same protection as full-timers — no benefits, no vacation pay, no sick days. Because I’m not in the union, I can’t stop work and expect to get strike pay. I can’t expect to come back to my job if and when the strike is resolved.
The HTU asked me, and all other columnists and freelancers, in a Jan. 7 open letter, to “avoid getting involved” in the about-to-boil-over labour dispute.
“Make it known that you will not file material or take new assignments until we are back at work with a contract in hand,” the letter urged.
That’s not avoiding involvement. That’s joining the strike.
The HTU was asking me to quit my non-unionized job to allow union members to have a better stab at keeping theirs.
That was beyond the bounds of solidarity for me.
For other columnists, it wasn’t. I know colleagues who quit automatically, because they were willing to forego their long-term prospects at the Herald to support the reporters, editors and photographers. I respect that decision. It doesn’t match mine, but I respect it.
I’ve read it argued that columnists ought to stand with the union because it’s the only option that supports quality journalism.
I believe deeply in the importance of journalism. I believe that sometimes, journalists have to take a stand against bad journalistic practices.
That argument forms the foundation of why I resigned from the Herald on Monday, after the April 9 publication of the story about refugee children at Chebucto Heights Elementary School.
See, it’s not that I would never quit my column on principle. It’s that quitting at the behest of the HTU, and in alignment with the HTU’s principles, didn’t sit right with me. And that goes regardless of how I felt then, or feel now, about the strike.
And about the strike — I think part of the backlash around my decision to keep writing has happened because people automatically assumed I would halt my column. Because I am a lefty.
Look, I don’t make decisions — and definitely not one as serious as this — based on the dogma of political leanings. I think things through. I don’t act on impulse.
I have mulled over this shambles forward and backward and I don’t know who’s right in the fight. Honestly, I don’t.
But I do know no one holds a monopoly on virtue. I have witnessed damaging behaviour from both sides since January. The Herald’s by-line moratorium is a disaster for accountability and transparency; the HTU’s personal attacks have degraded the conversation around why those reporters and editors and photographers that are out on the line — who represent some of the best and most dogged journalists in the province — need to be back practicing their craft.
Neither side is behaving well, here. Neither will escape unscathed. But it’s readers, the by-standers in this two-sided battle, who’ll suffer worst if the union stays on the line and the paper fades to irrelevance, or management remakes the Herald as a shadow of its once-solid self.
And all of this is a lot more pressing, I can say for sure, than the position of a once-a-week columnist.