Managing the Media:

Communicating Labour at High Tech U


Christopher Bodnar and Patricia Mazepa

Communications Committee

Unit 1, CUPE 4600

Teaching & Research Assistants

Carleton University


            As momentum for the commodification and privatization of education intensifies, our positions as educators and the public spaces of universites are no longer protected (Barlow & Robertson 1994; Robertson 1998; Tudiver 1999; Turk 2000).  Past depictions of academics living in the “ivory tower” is the substance of myth.  Our near-strike at Carleton University brought more of us to the realization that we are not only students and educators, we are workers. This realization is emerging at the same time as our labour is increasingly commodified as part of the so-called “knowledge” economy. While Marxists and staunch labour activists have long argued that we are all workers under capitalism, the perception of academia as removed from the so-called “real world” and the assumption of our position as being one of observation and objectivity is being given a severe shaking.  Although the catalysts are serious and we would rather they were not there; this wake-up call is long overdue.

         For the twelve hundred teaching and research assistants in CUPE 4600, the alarm was sounded by a strike vote after the university administration had failed, once again, to take our major contract proposals into timely and due consideration.  For the membership in general, this was a call to the responsibilities of union membership and necessity of collective action.  For the local’s executive, standard components of union organization became critical, as the possibility of a strike was now imminent.  In particular, bargaining negotiation and membership mobilization became the priorities, with the view that the essential link between the two was communications.  More than ever, communication with our membership, the larger university community and the public, became essential, as a strike would necessarily involve all of them. 

The challenge was in front of us to make our bargaining position known and understandable to a wider circle than our membership.  Indeed, if we were not understood as workers, how were we going to garner support from the larger community?  Just as importantly, how were we going to make the connections between the commodification and privatization of universities understood in terms of labour?  Wouldn’t the perception be that we were just demanding more money and draining limited public funds? 

he CUPE 4600 Communications Committee consisted mainly of the two of us and a laptop computer[1].  As graduate students in the communication department, we weren’t strangers to the media environment, but as labour communicators, the practices of media relations and communication strategies were less well known.  As an offer to labour communication strategists in the future, whatever their size, the following article provides an overview of these practices and our mobilization efforts centered on media, and offers suggestions for our continuing and collective battle for public education.

           To give you some background, the TAs and RAs at Carleton have been unionized since 1984, and every two years (beginning in June) we are in contract negotiations with the university.  Over its history, Carleton’s administration has traditionally taken their time to deal with negotiations over the summer, setting their own time schedules and agenda.  The union is consistently forced into calling a strike vote in the fall (or later) to demonstrate membership’s resolve to strike and to move management to negotiate over issues they would otherwise ignore.  Where it could be treated by the administration as an opportunity to build trust and work together for progressive change and improvement of our working and learning environment, it is a patronizing procedure that wears on the members.  It drains the local’s limited resources and reflects a profound lack of respect for students as employees of the university.  Negotiations are prolonged and controlled by management according to their own schedule and aims to control our ability to mobilize.  This year the negotiations were following the now-familiar pattern, but the situation was different from previous years in two important ways.

First, the University is being touted as one of the pillars in the “new” economy and has branded itself in publicity as “High Tech U”.  The title is intended to signify a transition to cater to the demands of the high-tech industry which, together with the various levels of governments, is part of the overall plan to convert the national capital into a high-tech centre known as Silicon Valley North.  Any threat to that plan garners attention from government, business and the local media, and this year we became such a threat.  Second, and arguably more important, our mobilization efforts were affected by both the challenges and successes of the York Strike.  This added necessary momentum to our mobilization efforts and heightened media attention as well as the interest of CUPE National and CUPE Ontario, which thus brought our relatively isolated position into public view.

The public first heard of a possible strike situation at Carleton in a brief smattering of articles on 30 November 2000, following the breakdown of talks with management. This was the result of our union representatives making direct contact by phone and a media release to all local media outlets within two hours of the break-off. The action was in response to a threat by management to go to the media first and intentionally embarrass the union.  The story received some attention because of York’s success, and as a result of the union initiating media contact, reports were largely from the union’s position.

By quickly responding to management threats and contacting the media, the local gained three important advantages.  First, the media became familiar with contacts from our local, recognizing our willingness to deal with them honestly and in a timely manner.  As well, the public’s first hint of a strike came from the union’s perspective – an advantage we worked hard to maintain throughout our mobilization.  Second, by getting basic coverage of the breakdown, the story was on the media’s radar, and was covered sufficiently to allow us a reprieve in order to regroup and plan for further mobilization.  We were then able to do a comprehensive mail-out to membership over the December break informing them of negotiation status, strike preparation and meetings to be held in January 2001.  Although the administration’s timing had been planned to thwart a strike by pushing us into December (when picketing would be less disruptive), it actually allowed us the time to prepare for mobilization at the beginning of the winter term.  

The next time the public heard about the potential strike was through an editorial article in the local newspaper The Ottawa Citizen (15 January 2001:D3).  Entitled “The last thing that Carleton needs is a strike”, the editorial recommended that our members should vote “no” in a strike vote and suggested that the administration avoid a “blunder into a big, messy labour fight”.  This direction was given as a warning to Carleton to save a carefully constructed but precarious reputation, which was no doubt tied to the branding of Ottawa as conducive to the high tech industry.  For CUPE 4600, and the communications committee in particular, the article served to alert us to crucial aspects of our mobilization strategy.

When faced with the enormous responsibility of strike action, insecurity becomes acute, whether it is on the part of the administration or the union.  As a likely unintended side-affect, the editorial prompted our attention to the vulnerabilities of the employer.  While we tended to think of our union as small in comparison to the resources and support structure of the university, we held to the knowledge that it is still within universities’ best interest to avoid strikes.  We needed to appreciate that there is considerable power in withholding labour despite the many arguments suggesting otherwise.  Also, we had to remind ourselves that strike action, if necessary, was wholly justified.  All the contract proposals had been derived from membership surveys and the justifications that were written in their support were legitimate, again despite the many vociferous external challenges against them.  Further, we needed to clarify each of these proposals in terms of their connections to the processes of privatization and commodification of the university.  Increased wages and tuition indexing were thus explained in terms of how they facilitated more affordable, accessible education, and class size was described in terms of the “quality of education” that Carleton likes to advertise more than it actually delivers.

Second, the newspaper article contained a battery of inaccuracies regarding our membership composition, issues under negotiations, and linkages to the greater processes of privatization.  All the standard negative characterizations of unions were contrived as the article depicted us as a greedy self-interest group willing to hold student’s hostage for selfish wage increases that would “drive students into the hands of private colleges”.  Such false accusations could have gone a long way to restrain our members from striking, and divide us from the rest of the university community and the general public.  We had just lost round one in the public ring and we needed to get in shape for round two. 

Taking stock, we recognized two types of media: those we control such as advertisements and our newsletters, and those we cannot control such as media reports and management communications.  In recognizing this difference, we were able to focus on refining consistent and precise messages to outlets that we could not control. Communication became central to the local’s organizing efforts and we involved ourselves in all areas of mobilization and strike preparation - from police protocol meetings to daily mobilization preparation sessions. This involvement allowed us (as a communication team) to be knowledgeable in all areas of strike preparation and external relations of the local and act as a central resource point for information. As part of our communication network, we first established a web page off of CUPE National’s page in order to provide information to our membership and the community in general, and then we established an email distribution list for our membership through TAO Communications.  We further concentrated on communicating with our membership through newsletters and information pickets, with guidance from CUPE’s (2000) handbook, Communicating CUPE.  Lastly, we engaged with the corporate media as a significant player in our mobilization efforts.

Research on media coverage of labour indicates that representations of labour are typically inaccurate or negative (Cirino 1971; Kalaski 1992; Parenti 1986; Puette 1992; Winter 1997).   Most coverage is congruent with the dominant hegemony in which organized labour is considered to be gadflies, at best.  At worst, unions are viewed as power-hungry anarchists intent on destroying a supposed democratic way-of-life.  Included in this view is that local action is manipulated by “big labour” Mafia, that it’s the union’s fault for labour disputes and for any breakdown in negotiations, and that the union is led by a handful of professional strike-loving agitators who do not represent the membership (despite their being elected).   Addressing academic unions in particular, in our case the union was blamed for increasing inequality between students because of our so-called “privileged” positions as teaching and research assistants (TAs/RAs), for crippling university budgets, and for destroying public education. 

Unions need to recognize that negative representations of labour are standard to all corporate-owned media, even before the employer engages in their own media and public relations campaign, which will likely support and exaggerate these further.  Nevertheless, a relation with corporate media has to be established.  Although it is a relationship that is unequal and adversarial to begin with, it doesn’t follow that they should necessarily be treated like an enemy and ignored.  For better or worse, the public gets the bulk of their information from the corporate media, so we found it essential to work with them in getting our message out as accurately as possible.

In preparation for extensive media contact, we developed a variety of information tools that were of particular benefit throughout mobilization. This included the following: the maintenance of a media contact list, a backgrounder on the local’s history, statistical sheets on membership composition, a timeline describing the events leading up to a strike vote, and lastly, a list and brief explanation of our negotiating positions.  For person-to-person contacts, two primary and two backup spokespeople were designated for the local.  Each of these contacts had a union mobile phone programmed with a comprehensive list of media contacts.  As we got closer to negotiations and the deadline set by the strike vote, contact intensified so that we were operating on a near 24-hour on-call basis.  This was exhausting work and contacts need to schedule-in call-answer shifts (which, regrettably, we didn’t do). 

In addition to improving the methods of communication, we worked to refine our media message.  We chose three of the most significant bargaining demands and worked at providing easy-to-understand descriptions of each, relating them to our struggle for affordable, quality public education.  Each one was elaborated in speaking notes for all of our spokespeople. The messages were also relayed by variety of brochures and posters specifically designed for each of the collective groups in the university community.  These included graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, other unions on campus, and other workers coming on to campus such as bus, taxis and delivery drivers.  To each we addressed a pamphlet outlinging the relevance of our proposals explaining how these and other actions intersected with issues of their concern.  For specific groups we also composed a letter to the organization representing groups on campus (e.g. Graduate Students’ Association, Canadian Federation of Students, and Carleton University Academic Staff Association, etc.) providing explanation, and justifications for our request of their support and solidarity.  Our message was further refined and widely distributed in a series of radio and print advertisements produced by CUPE National. The ads explained the local’s position and pointed out the contradictions of Carleton’s “education for life” slogan in comparison to their actual treatment of their students and employees. The ads ran for two weeks leading up to the strike deadline at approximately thirty spots a week on each of the twelve major commercial and campus radio stations in Ottawa. The print ads ran weekly in both commercial daily papers and the Carleton student news magazine.

A further foray into media research indicates that as commercial news takes on the characteristic of infotainment, media industries look for conflict and chaos for the content of their news reports (Hackett and Zhao 1998, Karim 2000, Moeller 1999, Winter 1992).  To illustrate the conflict and to appear neutral and objective, journalists will normally look to provide two sides of the story. They will search for members who may disagree with majority decisions and they will focus on the “innocent victims” of the impending strike that weighs more negatively on the union if coverage follows the biased standard.  Demonstration of oppositions is evident in the “Letters to the Editor” section, and was exemplified in our case in a later editorial article in The Ottawa Citizen (30 January 30 2001;D4) that presented opposing views from within our membership on the question of strike action. 

While the media will search out the membership for individual stories, it is crucial that the union contacts and spokespeople are on the journalist’s list as a consistent and reliable source of information.  It is should also be recognized that the journalist’s job is increasingly difficult as media outlets reduce the number of journalists in their newsrooms (Winseck 2001) and rarely assign reporters to labor “beats” (Winter 1992).  Given that the individual journalist assigned to the story may not be an expert in labour negotiations or the overall issues involved in the strike, it is up to the union to ensure that they are well informed.

In surveying the coverage during our mobilization, the majority centered on rallies at the university and on membership meetings where reporters expected confrontational comments from representatives of CUPE Ontario and CUPE National.  As these stories were covered and public attention was piqued, the need for further public discussion prompted some additional and beneficial coverage for us.  As a result, the work we had put into briefing notes and statistics soon paid off as these were occasionally repeated word for word in articles (e.g. Rogers 2001).  While we were prepared for the media queries, it would have been easy to lose control of the situation had the guiding principles of our communication strategy been ignored.

The principles that we established were based on the democratic organization of the local that begins with the membership as derived from face-to-face meetings, the bargaining survey, and other forms of internal communications.  As a result, we would only speak about facts surrounding the negotiations and bargaining positions of our membership.  Moreover, comments made by spokespeople on these issues reflected the decisions of the membership rather than any one particular person.

In devising and refining our communication strategies, principles of democratic decision-making in the local manifest themselves in a set of guidelines in engaging with the media.  In addition to suggestions already made here and in the handbook Communicating CUPE, these are as follows:

· Recognize that this is the public record.  You will be held accountable for what you say and management may use this to get an injunction against you in the future;


· Do not boycott the media because of an unfavorable report;


· Do not comment on rumors or speculate. Your job is to represent the membership and forward factual information, not to provide color commentary;


· The media want to know what your job is and what your personal opinion is. Only speak about areas of which you are knowledgeable;

· Never take the risk of changing the organization’s public stance by making a personal comment in place of the membership’s position.


The last rule is perhaps the most crucial both in establishing a consistent and accurate message as well as maintaining the fundamental basis for democracy in the local.  Membership should always be informed about developments before the media are.  Aim to ensure that membership isn’t hearing about new positions or policies in the media before they have had a chance to review the matter and have agreed that the positions are satisfactory.  This was the purpose of our membership listserv so that issues could be discussed as soon as they arose.  Otherwise, if membership is misrepresented by union spokespeople in the media, the democratic underpinnings of the local are jeopardized, and trust may be broken throughout the whole collective, including the membership, the bargaining committee, the mobilization teams, and other constituencies, including the communications committee.

 From our own experience, the local’s executive council gave authority to the bargaining committee to decide whether there would be a strike based upon the status of negotiations down to the half-hour before picket lines were set to go up. This concentrated discretion at the hands of a few individuals who were incredibly tired after a 48-hour period of intense bargaining. In addition, when the strike was postponed only moments before the picket lines were to go up, we were assigned a large responsibility to communicate the strike status to the media.  Had the mobilization, bargaining, and communication teams not adhered to the position of the membership and communicated proper information within the half-hour before the strike deadline, the entire democratic process of the local would have been destroyed.  It was a narrow miss.  In our local, the problems with working on such a restricted time line under the pressures of the media and bargaining processes continues to be debated on how to guarantee democratic operating principals within our local in the future.

In the end the membership accepted the contract as negotiated by the bargaining team.  Both management and the union were satisfied with the outcome.  Significant gains were made in the following areas: (1) tuition indexing which was legally worded as “tuition increase allowance” for the university’s political purposes, (2) intellectual property rights, (3) maternal and parental leave payments and (4) union participation in decision-making processes such as class size and the administration of a new employee assistance fund (for child care, eye glasses and international students workers’ health insurance premiums).

The negotiations could have come to a satisfactory conclusion, if it weren’t for management’s actions, however.  Rather than using their experience to further satisfactory contract negotiations throughout other universities, the Carleton University administration seems to have taken a typical business view of student unions as adversaries. They may be under the influence of the corporate media, who, true to form, lambasted the university for “giving in to the union”.  For example, in her March 1 Financial Post column, Diane Francis reported on a memo sent by Carleton to other Ontario universities. Under the heading “Whipsawing for fun and profit”, Francis declared, “It is time we had provincial bargaining for universities. Carleton and York Universities folded recently, allowing the militant Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to win large concessions in an era of constraint.” Claiming Carleton to be a “vulnerable” campus, Francis quotes the memo leaked to her by Carleton administration:

Watch out for the mediator who is handpicked by the union. Watch out for the fact that union outsiders bargain for more moderate employees of the university involved. Watch out for threats because they pick on campuses that can be strangled, traffic-wise, which maximizes the effect of any strike.


While the university rushed to assure corporate Canada that they are still on board, Carleton chief negotiator David Van Dine attended to public relations by giving a conciliatory response to queries from The Ottawa Citizen on the tentative agreement:


In the interest of labour peace, we settled. We wanted to settle on terms that were satisfactory to the university and the union. The settlement was within a framework that we could live with and we are pleased to do that and avoid a strike (1 February 2001: B2). 


Aside from inaccuracies in the memo and Francis’ assessment (the mediator was the Chief of the Office of Mediation for Ontario and agreed to by Carleton administration, the bargaining team never allowed “union outsiders” to control negotiations, and it was Carleton management who saw fit to hire a professional strikebreaker with experience as the Ottawa Police labor relations officer), the commentary serves as a stark warning for labour organizers in the future. Universities recognize that there are allies in anti-union organizing in journalists like Francis and media like the Financial Post.  At least this corporate media outlet appears ever-ready to support union- and strike- breaking activities.  Moreover, by approaching the media in the aftermath of its defeat, Carleton management has now recognized the importance of communication strategies for their future efforts.  Nonetheless, rallying media support was easier than we anticipated, and Carleton provided little resistance assuming there would be a lack of membership and other support for the union. They were wrong.

As university management appears to be pooling collective experience to fight workers’ demands in the future, workers must also attend to our victories and defeats. Unions cannot take for granted the work of other locals or of their national organizations in past struggles.  We need to share as much information and resources as possible in order to effectively realize worker solidarity.  Just as important - considering the media professionals employed by York University to fight against CUPE 3903 - it would be naive to assume Carleton would not have stepped up their public relations efforts had a strike taken place.  They had also proven that they have instant access to the whole student population and will use email, and internal and external mail-outs to our membership, and employ their substantial resources and power networks if necessary.   When such tactics have been used, the challenge remained to foster relations not built on adversary but on mutual respect in future efforts to improve our working and learning environment.

In the end, CUPE 4600 members were able to successfully negotiate a contract meeting the union memberships’ proposals. An instrumental element to our success was the maintenance of strong, open lines of communication with membership, the university community and the public, largely through the corporate media. At a time when a public relations campaign can win the university more support than a solid reputation for quality education, strong media relations can be the key to success for labor groups attempting to fight for decent working conditions and a living wage. Universities, however, are not oblivious to the power of communication strategies in labor disputes. It should be expected that they will strike back harder in future disputes.

As corporations, governments, and universities form “partnerships”, and work to transform knowledge into an economy, universities into industries and education into training, academic labour is the fulcrum of struggle. Through our experiences we realized that our contract IS the point of convergence for several issues.  While these include the continual improvement of the working and education environment, it also is one of the fundamental sites where government and university policies facilitating privatization and commodification are revealed.  Our contract legally provides us with limits to withstand and work to reversing such trends, and to increase public awareness of their ramifications. This is why communicating through all forms of media is essential.



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[1] Although we took responsibility for communications, union work is always a collective effort. We would like to thank John Peters from CUPE 3903 (York University), our primary spokespeople Finn Makela, VP External and Aalya Ahmad, President CUPE 4600 and the rest of the CUPE 4600 executive for their dedication and assistance.