Unions

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Discussion about unions on The Lang & O'Leary Exchange

On the September 19, 2011 edition of CBC News Network's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange, seen September 20 on CBC Television, co-hosts Amanda Lang and Kevin O'Leary discussed the recent federal effort to avert a strike by Air Canada's flight attendants.

Lang and O'Leary regularly trade remarks on timely topics in the program. O'Leary is a commentator and contractual employee who appears elsewhere on CBC and manages a venture fund, while Lang is CBC's senior business correspondent who analyzes but does not opine on the show.

A previous finding has articulated the framework for O'Leary's involvement under the CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

In this instance, the two hosts were discussing a move by the federal government to provoke a settlement in the contract dispute that suggested the union's right to strike would be taken away if a deal could not be reached quickly.

Lang said the intervention collided with legal rights. “Whatever you think of unions, they have a right to strike,” she said.

O'Leary said: “Here's the right thing to do: Elect me as prime minister for 15 minutes. I will make unions illegal. Anybody who remains a union member will be thrown in jail.”

He said unions couldn't shut down entities like the airlines and the postal service because they harm an economy “which is fragile in the first place.”

Lang said that if the agenda is “to do away with the unions,” the government should be clearer on that issue and not just be “undermining their ability to negotiate.”

O'Leary argued that leaving the union would get attendants market salaries that would be higher, even if there would be fewer of them. Lang said she doubted union members would support that “because you as prime minister and the private entity then called Air Canada” would likely strip many negotiated benefits in the process.

O'Leary said everyone had made adjustments in the new economy, some of them painful.

Lang noted that unions have the right to strike and that O'Leary knows that “contracts are important” and should not be rescinded “at the eleventh hour” when they are uncomfortable.

Of unions, she said: “You can love them or hate them. They have that right (to strike) in this country and it's being taken away, quietly but right in front of all of us.”

O'Leary countered: “Here's the answer: You have to fight evil with evil. You've got to take away those rights.”

He went on: “Unions themselves are borne of evil, they must be destroyed with evil, so you have to kill their contracts.”

Lang said: “As long as you agree that the action by the government is as evil as you perceive the striking to be, then we can move on.”

O'Leary got in one last comment: “No one could contain unions in hell. They were so evil they came out of hell and they came upon earth.”

The complainant, Lisa Card, wrote November 7 that O'Leary's comments “can be interpreted as an attempt to incite violence or possible murder of union workers.”

She asked: “The next time a union worker is run over on the picket line and permanently disabled, is it going to be by some picket line-busting goon who decided that the workers must be ‘destroyed with evil' after listening to O'Leary?”

Two other high-profile complainants had written CBC earlier, one October 14 jointly from the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), and one November 4 from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). Both letters asserted O'Leary's comments violated CBC policy.

In their October 14 letter, NUPGE president James Clancy and OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said O'Leary's comments “are not only highly offensive, they are very disturbing, irresponsible and potentially illegal. Mr. O'Leary's willful promotion of contempt and hatred towards unions reflects a viewpoint that has often ended in violence perpetrated against union members and leaders around the world.”

They added: “Mr. O'Leary's comments helped foster an environment in which violence against union members . . . is deemed as acceptable behaviour.” They said it could be argued that his comments “border on criminal hate speech” and that O'Leary's remarks had made it difficult for the opinions of union supporters “to be equitably expressed and challenged.”

In his November 4 letter, CUPW president Denis Lemelin said O'Leary's position on unions is “unreasonable and inflammatory” and discordant with policy. He said O'Leary used “gratuitously offensive language and charged imagery” that compromise CBC's goal of balanced programming.

He, too, said the remarks raised concerns about anti-union violence. Lemelin urged CBC to address the remarks and “take proactive steps, with the aim of ensuring this will not occur in the future.”

Robert Lack, the executive producer of The Lang & O'Leary Exchange, wrote Card on November 8 to disagree with her observations.

“There's no question that Mr. O'Leary is exaggerating what he says for effect. It's a method he employs for most of the subjects he addresses, not just unions,” Lack wrote. “But with all due respect, I cannot agree that a statement to ‘kill their contracts' in any way leads to or incites violence against union members.”

Lack said “O'Leary's comments are never in isolation. In this case they came during a discussion with Amanda Lang about whether it is appropriate for the federal government to intervene in legal negotiations between unions and employers. It's something the federal government has done three times this year, and we believe it's an important issue for public debate.”

Later that day, Card asked for a review. Given that she was the first to request, she is considered the complainant.

Other correspondence was sent November 16 by Lack to the NUPGE-OPSEU complainants and to the CUPW complainant.

In it, Lack said it was not O'Leary's intention or the program's intention to give offence

“To be sure, his remarks were colourful. But in their mock Biblical phrasing and their religious imagery evoking cataclysmic good and evil they are — and are intended to be — exaggerated and absurd. Of course, unions are not actually ‘evil,' they are not ‘borne of evil,' they did not come ‘upon Earth.'”

Lack challenged the assertion that equated unions with minorities and vulnerable groups. He noted that 30 per cent of the country's workforce is unionized, that O'Leary's criticism was of unions and not union members, and that O'Leary's solution (as the imaginary prime minister) embraced a legal process.

He also noted the program had featured several union leaders, including one of the complainants, to assert the role of organized labour in the economy.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for even-handed and respectful treatment of individuals and organizations.

It articulates a principle of balance: “On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views and reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.”

The policy provides room for opinions to be expressed on programs by commentators, but not by CBC journalists. “When presenting content (programs, program segments, or digital content) where a single opinion or point of view is featured, we ensure that a diversity of perspective is provided across a network or platform and in an appropriate time frame.”

The policy guides the use of language on programs: “We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

It notes: “The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration.”

A passage on live reporting intersects with the complaint: “We respect and reflect the generally accepted values of society. We are aware that the audiences we address do not all have the same definition of good taste. We choose a tone that will not gratuitously offend audience sensitivities. In particular we avoid swearing and coarse, vulgar, offensive or violent language except where its omission would alter the nature and meaning of the information reported.”

Conclusion

Context is quite important. Heard in isolation, O'Leary's choice of words might seem problematic. Heard as elements in a lengthy exchange, they were far less so.

There could be no surprise in O'Leary's position on unions, something he has articulated for more than a decade on CBC and elsewhere. He knows that his opinions need to stop short of personal name-calling and acknowledged that in apologizing for doing so in recent weeks. That being said, he is also serious about the need for a debate on the state and future of organized labour. The program regularly features such discussions, and in them O'Leary gets as good as he gives. There has to be room in a public broadcaster for such discourse.

In this instance O'Leary said he would make unions illegal if he were prime minister and lock up anyone who remained a union member. I concluded that his attack was not personal — his criticism was institutional, not individual. I cannot support the view that organized labour fits a reasonable definition of a vulnerable group. While there was room for improvement in the repetitive use of the word “evil,” there was no breach of policy as it pertains to hateful or contemptuous language.

O'Leary used the term “evil” to describe unions, just as Lang suggested the term “evil” could apply to the government's effort to take away their legal right to strike. This is not an ideal descriptor, but unless it were personally directed, it would be absurd to prohibit its use.

By the end of the discussion, it should be noted Lang was indicating (and O'Leary wasn't denying) that one evil equated the other. Again, their choice of words could have been better, but the improvised exchange was not in violation of policy.

I do not agree that it is reasonable to conclude the impact of O'Leary's remarks intimidate or sow fear. There is only evidence to the contrary. The program regularly features labour leaders and others who take issue with business practices and there appears to be no reticence to appear. Indeed, one of the guests on that edition of the program was Joel Bakan, an academic, author and filmmaker who has been a strong voice against corporations.

Longer-term viewing would find a program and hosts exploring the current state and future of organized labour amid economic change. This should be encouraged.

One cautionary note: When O'Leary opines, Lang is often there to counter or buffer. But it is important under policy that, as a CBC journalist, she not veer from analysis and observation into commentary. In this instance she was put in an awkward position and it was not easy to finesse her disagreement with O'Leary without expressing her own opinion.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman