Labour dispute

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The review concerns a segment February 5 on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition about a labour dispute and a complaint that an interview lacked balance and fairness. I concluded there was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On February 5, 2012, CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition featured an interview with Pradeep Kumar, a professor emeritus at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Kumar is the former director of the Masters of Industrial Relations program at the School.

In recent days it had been announced that the Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ontario, was closing. The company had failed to gain labour concessions, including 50- per-cent salary cuts and pension and other benefit reductions. Progress Rail Services Corp., a subsidiary of the Caterpillar construction firm, announced that 450 workers locked out January 1 would not be returning to work because the plant would close.

Program host Michael Enright used the Electro-Motive closure as an example of increased tensions between organized labour and industry. He noted that Caterpillar had completed a record year and that its executives were paid healthy bonuses at the same time as Electro-Motive workers were being asked for cuts. He cited developments in the United States to combat unions.

Among other things, Enright asked if it was unusual for healthy companies to make “draconian” demands. He wondered if increasingly common lockouts had become a “blunt instrument” in company arsenals to deal with labour and whether we were seeing the increased vilification of workers. Enright wanted to know what were the myths of organized labour and what unions needed to do to be more relevant. He asked Kumar if Canada was headed down the path to a more American-style tone tough on labour, and he asked if it might be good for the economy to not have unions.

Among other things, Kumar said the particular concessions in this instance were unprecedented and he suggested that society was witnessing a “race to the bottom” in which concessions were no longer “short-run” gestures to address urgent corporate needs. In Kumar's view, this trend constituted an attack on unions and he predicted there would be negative economic consequences. He offered that employers have exploited a climate of negativity about organized labour and asserted that unions were complacent about their place in society and needed to be more relevant at a labour council level. He did not believe Canada would follow the American trend of anti-union practice because labour had a better reputation here, and he emphasized it was important to protect union living standards because of the importance of labour income to the overall economy.

The complainant, Viggo Lewis, wrote February 5 to say the segment was “one-sided” and that CBC intended to present only the union perspective on the issue.

“Totally absent in my hearing was the other side of the story,” including the financial state of the plant and the relative wages of the workers compared to their American counterparts. He said CBC typically speaks ill of profits, “ignoring the fact that profits are the reward to shareholders consisting of people like you and I, pension plans and others who hope not to have to rely on the big hand of government for their retirement, and who put their hard-earned earnings at risk when they invest.”

He summarized the segment: “Another shining example of lack of balance by CBC.”

Jim Handman, the acting executive producer of The Sunday Edition, wrote back February 8 and said Kumar was “one of Canada's leading experts on unionism, collective bargaining, and workplace change in North America.”

Handman said Kumar was not on the program to represent either side in the dispute but to “provide expert analysis, for which he is eminently qualified.”

Lewis was dissatisfied with the response and asked February 9 for a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices compel fair and balanced coverage of issues.

“We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views,” the policy says. “On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are 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.”

There is latitude within the policy to permit expression of opinion.

“Our programs and platforms allow for the expression of a particular perspective or point of view. This content adds public understanding and debate on the issues of the day. 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.”

When a point of view is presented it must be clearly labeled and not misrepresent the perspective of the other side of a contentious issue.

It adds: “Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all our platforms.”

Commentators and guests are permitted to express their views, but the policy requires certain conditions.

“CBC, in its programming, over time, provides a wide range of comment and opinion on significant issues. We achieve balance by featuring multiple perspectives and points of view to reflect a diversity of opinion. It is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person's perspective.”

Conclusion

CBC policy permits a range of views across its platforms on controversial issues and does not require each segment to achieve balance.

I have acknowledged at times this can be frustrating to some members of the audience seeking balanced presentation of perspectives at once. I also accept that a deeper exploration of someone's views is most possible when there is only one guest. I believe this depth-versus-diversity trade-off is satisfactory as policy in serving the public if the segment is staged with curiosity and not complacency and if there can be found a range of perspectives elsewhere in the program or even across the platforms of CBC within a reasonable timeframe.

In this instance, the program featured the guest for his longstanding expertise in labour trends and his contemporary understanding of the tensions between unions and employers. He was appearing in the context of a highly controversial plant closing. The line of questioning was not aggressive, but its purpose was not to seek accountability. Nor was it a debate. It was principally an explanatory segment.

While it was clear the guest supported the existence of unions and their contribution to the Canadian economy, he also did not spare them criticism. In particular, he observed that they had lost ground at council levels in mustering public support and needed to find new ways to be relevant. His criticism of corporations was not extreme. Both views were presented within a framework of fair comment.

The host did not express any views as part of the segment.

I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman