Version of Tely Demise
Book Review by John Marshall
It was a union iceberg that in 1971 sank the Tely Titanic, says
Peter Worthington looking for trouble in his book
Looking for Trouble.
In one of the more revisionist sections, he gives his version of
events leading up to the killing of Canada's third-largest newspaper,
the Toronto Telegram. He blames The Newspaper Guild, particularly
for what he repeatedly calls a strike vote, for pushing the poor
publisher, John Bassett, into announcing 48 hours later that he
couldn't keep the paper going. Worthington says the union organizers
were demanding that Bassett with a paper that lost $1-million
in 1970 to the Toronto Star's $3-million profit match
a Star pay hike of about $40 over two years.
But as was reported at the time, and in Jock Carroll's November
1971 book The Death of the Toronto Telegram; in Maggie Siggins'
revealing 1979 biography Bassett, in the October 1971 Content
magazine and in Editor and Publisher, Sept. 25, 1971,
the facts are quite different.
To begin with the union vote 298 to 111 was not
to go on strike. It was the common resolution giving negotiators
in tough bargaining the authority to call a strike if a breakdown
in negotiations made it necessary. In this case of union solidarity
(praised by rightists only if it happens in Poland) few thought
there actually would be a strike.
The vote Worthington calls a charade. Yes it was. That was because
Bassett had already pushed the other owners, including the Eaton merchant family,
into a decision to close the paper. Their then political editor,
Fraser Kelly, now at the CBC, also counters Worthington.
The night of the vote he was at a dinner with the publisher, and
Bassett said no matter how the vote went the paper was through,
and that he didn't give a shit about the paper any more. That was
in two other books for Worthington to read.
Worthington didn't tell his colleagues that he and his wife had
been tipped off by Bassett to look for a job elsewhere. But he told
that dramatic membership meeting that if Bassett had warned he might
close the paper if wage demands were too high, then he would. "He
(Bassett) might gamble, but he didn't bluff or lie."
Now with the facts long available Worthington avoids
telling how Bassett was gambling, how the union called his bluff,
and how Bassett tipped over the table.
What the union didn't know was that Bassett had two wild cards up
The union objective had been the Star's wage level. But when
Bassett opened his books to union auditors, negotiators admitted
there was a problem. Bassett had proposed a wage freeze and a $10
raise the next year (not the immediate $10 Worthington reports).
The union committee saw Bassett and raised, said they'd take the
freeze but as an IOU, with a deserved raise for the year payable
when the paper made a profit. And also unreported by Worthington
although revealed in 1971 in Content by Marc Zwelling, the
Guild local's president a union analysis agreed with a management
one that the paper could break even in 1972 and make a profit in
1973. Bassett had rejected the proposal. And Siggins later documented
that a substantial amount of Bassett's big losses were paper ones
attributed to depreciation. And there was a leaked management study
showing how efficiencies could be made.
But what organizers didn't know when they sought support from a
membership not noted for militancy was that there'd be no more bargaining.
And as Time magazine later reported following hectic unionists'
efforts to get buyers to save the paper, a "buyer" had
already been found. The Star was paying $10-million, allegedly
for the Tely's circulation list, and $2-million for two years' use of its modern presses. The Globe
was then getting the paper's plant for $7-million. Worthington mentions
only the Star's Sl2-million, all of which he says was for
the so-called circulation list.
Worthington also says if Bassett had only realized the Star was
moving to a new building and going to have trouble with its new
presses, he could have held on and successfully profited from its
problems. Worthington blames the publisher's "minions"
for not having this knowledge and telling Bassett.
The CBC's Ron Haggart, then a star, hard-news Tely columnist
who was kept on salary but banned by Bassett from writing because
of his support of the Guild, says that's one of Worthington's errors, too. It was common knowledge
in the industry the Star move had been years in the planning.
And Bassett knew the trouble he, himself, had had with his own new
presses only a few years before.
Worthington also reports that the remarkable Telegram (elsewhere
I've described it as a mix of brilliance and banality) had once
been a place of great esprit but that it had become a place
of "lethargy, bitterness and cover-your-ass journalism."
I guess he was out of town too much to know what was going on. From
Canada's centennial year to 1971, its "lethargic" staff
won 14 major writing awards compared to the Star's 13 and
the Globe's five. In its last two years it was winner of
the most prestigious award for graphic excellence and design.
While Worthington was obsessed with international matters, particularly
Soviet spies, only the kind of team spirit that existed at the Tely
could have pulled off a unique and still-unequalled cross-Canada project, "Canada 70." It
was the most in-depth journalists' study ever made of the country
and ended up as a boxed set of six McClelland and Stewart books.
About 4,000 people up to and including Prime Minister Trudeau participated
in this "cover-your-ass" project by a team of top reporters
and editors, additional freelancers, Le Devoir staffers, sociologists and computermen.
As for "bitterness," as just one of the journeymen journalists
involved, I felt none of that in those final years reporting from
Ireland, Cuba, the United States, Quebec, Bahamas, Newfoundland,
the shores of James Bay and elsewhere.
But I did become bitter at the management attitude that forced us
into that final Guild meeting. Worthington writes that I stood up
and said I'd "go out and shovel snow rather than debase (myself)
and accept a wage settlement below that of the Star."
He said the same thing in a 1982 column when Guild complaints about
the intransigence of Globe and Mail ownership made him break
out in a case of cloudy deja vu. He published my subsequent
letter saying that I had learned from him the meaning of the science
fiction term, "time warp." It apparently did not send
him to Sun files or elsewhere to check on his memory.
My participation was correctly reported in the news at the time
and by Jock Carroll, a Telegram feature writer at the meeting.
I did not speak to any money demand. Foolishly, that has never been
an obsession of mine in this business. I was responding to a troubled
Helen Gagen, food editor, who said a strike would have everyone
out shovelling snow for a living. "That may be all right for
some of you younger people but not people of my age."
I was then a white-haired 50 (Worthington reported 45). I was
judging by her appearance older than Helen. Almost in its
entirety, my assurance of at least some older support for the younger
people was: "I'd rather be out shovelling snow than on the
paper the way it is being run now!" J.M.
Check the original reviewed version : The
Trouble With Looking For Trouble
Published in Sources, Winter 1984
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