Halifax Chronicle Herald union votes to strike over pension benefits

Unionized workers in the newsroom of Canada’s largest independently-owned daily newspaper voted overwhelmingly in favour of striking Saturday if a contract cannot be reached next week.

The Halifax Typographical Union, which represents 61 unionized workers at the Halifax Chronicle Herald, said 98.3% of members voted in favour of strike action.

Vice-president Francis Campbell said the union is hoping it won’t come to that and two days have been set aside next week for last-ditch, conciliated talks.

“But we’re not overly optimistic because we think the company’s agenda since bargaining began was to lock us out,” said Campbell in a phone interview on Saturday.

Management filed a notice earlier this week that gives the company the option to lock out its newsroom staff with 48 hours notice – a pre-emptive legal move that doesn’t necessarily mean a lockout will happen.

But Campbell said the 140-year-old company has made clear it is getting ready to lock out the employees to press its proposals to reduce wages, lengthen working hours, shrink pension benefits and lay off up to 18 workers.

“We’ve been told to return equipment like cameras, computers and cell phones to the company by Friday,” said Campbell.

The bargaining unit includes reporters, editors, photographers, editorial writers, columnists, page technicians and support staff.

Nancy Cook, the Herald’s vice-president of administration, issued a statement saying the strike vote came as no surprise and said management would try to work out an agreement when the two sides resume talks in the coming week.

Mark Lever, CEO of The Halifax Herald Ltd., published an open letter in the newspaper on Saturday, saying the current contract is “unsustainable.”

“To be clear, we do not want to see our colleagues on a picket line. It is not, nor has it ever been our intent to lock out newsroom staff,” Lever said in the letter. “Change is never easy but change we must.”

Lever wrote that even with the reductions, the Herald will still have the highest wages and largest newsroom in Atlantic Canada.

The union has said the company’s proposal to cut wages and extend working hours from 35 to 40 hours a week will result in a 17% reduction in newsroom pay. It said the company has also indicated it wants to do away with the existing defined benefit pension plan.

A provincial conciliator filed a report on Jan. 8, which means a strike or lockout could happen beginning next Saturday.

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