eNewsletter • WINTER 2014
Bill Gillespie might one day be seen as one of the heroes who helped save Canadian workers from anti-union politicians. But it would be in the role of a comic-book titan’s alter-ego, the mild-mannered reporter, that he would have to take the bow.
His video, Made in the USA: Tim Hudak’s Plan to Cut Your Wages, has been credited with being a major catalyst for the Ontario Conservative leader’s recent retreat in his right-to-work crusade. But it also demonstrated to unions that journalism is crucial to getting their message across to the public.
Gillespie, who had retired in July 2011 from a stellar career as a CBC foreign correspondent, was well equipped and perfectly positioned when he was approached by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) about producing a film on the devastation caused by right-to-work laws in the United States.
He “jumped at the chance” because “I wanted to get back to my labour roots.” Those roots reach back some four decades, to when he earned his master’s degree in labour history at Memorial University in St. John’s.
Although a member of CWA Canada’s largest Local, the Canadian Media Guild, Gillespie could not be an activist while working as a journalist. As a professional, “I put my left-wing politics on the shelf and played things down the middle. I avoided covering anything that had to do with labour.” That he was never accused of being biased by politicians of any stripe is proof he was fair and balanced in his news coverage.
“Once I left the CBC, I decided to leave mainstream journalism behind and nail my colours to the mast because I’ve always been a supporter of unions and a believer in them. It was really quite liberating.”
Gillespie saw the project for OPSEU as an opportunity to put the skills and contacts he had accumulated over a 35-year career “back into the service of labour.” And that’s just what he did last summer, embarking with his film crew on a two-week road trip to three American states, producing a Michael Moore-style documentary about what President Barak Obama has famously called “right-to-work-for-less” laws.
There was a sense of urgency to his mission. Hudak, who had unveiled his right-to-work policy a year earlier, had been travelling the province ever since, demonizing OPSEU and workers in general and promising that, if he became premier, he’d get rid of the Rand formula, which obliges all members of a union to pay dues. His outlandish job-creation claims were going largely unchallenged in the mainstream media.
Gillespie knew that this called for journalism in the public interest. “Obviously right to work is an extremely important issue, no matter what it’s called. It’s an attack on unions, intended to bleed them of their finances and to tip the balance even further in favour of business, corporations and right-wing idealogues.”
In the late 1980s when Gillespie was working on CBC Radio’s political affairs program, The House, “unions were part of the conversation.” They, and their issues, no longer are.
Over the last decade, the media industry has been crippled as advertising revenues plummeted in the Internet era. Newsrooms have been decimated; among the first to go were specialists such as labour reporters. The journalists who remain are expected to do much more with less and no one has time to do a proper job. As a result, labour issues are not explored thoroughly.
“It is bizarre and wrong that unions don’t get more coverage. It’s not just unions ... it’s the issues ... that get short shrift,” says Gillespie.
“Look at CBC: They have a business show that’s on every day. They have a lot of business reporters. How many labour reporters do they have? How much attention does that side of the equation get? Look at any newspaper in Canada, it’s the same thing.”
“It’s egregious,” says Gillespie. “What are unions in this society? They represent 4.5 million people in Canada — almost 30 per cent of the labour force. And what do they do? They ensure that people are treated with respect in the workplace and have a wage with which they can raise their families in decency or pursue their goals in life modestly. So what’s bad about unions?
“Given the fact they are responsible for putting money in the pockets of all workers, as unions raise the level of wages and protect working conditions, they do it for everybody.”
The rise to power of right-wing anti-union politicians, federally and provincially, coincided with this defanging of the media watchdog, which itself is now on a leash held by a few powerful corporations.
Conservatives, says York University Prof. David Doorey, are pushing for right-to-work laws and other anti-union measures “because they are desperate to weaken the voice of the labour movement in the political process.” In a blog post last fall (“Bullshit in Labour Policy Debates”) he reveals how the Tories cite biased studies conducted by right-wing “think tanks” like the Fraser Institute and misrepresent the facts to support their ridiculous claims.
It’s up to unions, says Gillespie, to become better communicators, to fight the Tory fictions with facts. They need to hire journalists who understand how to present an important story to the media, to get their attention. “People consume their news through broadcast” so it’s necessary to get thousands of views on YouTube, which Made in the USA has. OPSEU also mailed DVDs of the video to 100,000 of its members.
When the Ontario Conservatives held their convention in London in the fall, OPSEU rented space in a hotel across the street and held a press conference to unveil the 20-minute video.
Afterwards, Gillespie personally delivered it to every reporter working in the legislature bureau at Queen’s Park.
Shortly thereafter, says Gillespie, he started seeing news stories that contained more analysis and described Hudak’s “Path to Prosperity” policy as controversial and anti-union.
OPSEU political economist Randy Robinson, who came up with the idea of doing the video, says “I don’t think there is any question this was the single biggest media event linked to this issue.”
Noting that only 53 per cent of the Conservatives attending the London convention supported the policy because they saw it as dooming their election hopes, he saw the video as “pouring more weight onto the camel’s back.”
Where does the labour movement go from here? Bill Gillespie would like to see an organization such as the Canadian Labour Congress hire a journalist to produce a short film on Stephen Harper. He is convinced that, if the Canadian public knew what the prime minister’s true agenda is, he would not be able to get away with his war on workers and the middle class.
“This is a critical time for unions,” says Gillespie. “This is a locomotive coming down the tracks and unions have to sit up and take notice. This is serious.”
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