Potato chips, broadsheets and labour action

Media coverage of bitter strikes stands out

While there is no ostensible connection between the ongoing, extremely bitter strikes at the Covered Bridge potato chip company and the Halifax Chronicle Herald, they’re both worth examining from a journalistic perspective.

Strikes can be pretty difficult to cover in a newspaper. The nature of news stories – short, preoccupied with balance, and written by someone who isn’t necessarily familiar with the issue they are reporting on – means that coverage can often present a strike in isolation without explaining the structural issues that the workers are responding to. It’s something worth considering from the perspective of a student paper, too. It’s important to have a dedicated reporter keeping up with press releases from faculty and staff unions and a solid understanding of past labour issues at the university.

For those of you without a love for chips or strike coverage, Covered Bridge employees have been picketing for several weeks and have called for a boycott of the company’s products until the dispute is resolved. The story has garnered quite a bit of attention online—or at least it seems so, according to my Facebook feed. But it’s never really clear if that means people care about the story or if Facebook’s algorithm has figured out I’ll read anything about a labour dispute.

The amount of attention is somewhat atypical, but makes sense when considering Covered Bridge has been something of a media sensation for quite a while. If the New Brunswick-themed branding wasn’t enough to draw attention, their “Storm Chips” product is more of the cutesy Maritime-specific branding proliferating in the wake of East Coast Lifestyle’s success.

Perhaps the bigger reason that the strike has gotten quite a bit of coverage is because it shattered the image of the homegrown business benevolently providing much-needed jobs in New Brunswick. This fantasy fell apart when the Covered Bridge president ranting against unionized workplaces said to the union rep, “Screw you and your fucking union.” This rant was the best possible thing that could have happened to the union from a media perspective.

The other large and bitter labour dispute that is ongoing in the Maritimes is the workers of the Halifax Typographical Union at the Chronicle Herald going on strike. It is of note both because it’s a strike taking place within a media organization, and because of the way in which several sources have chosen to cover it.

If you’ve been following the strike, it’s difficult to avoid noticing that the Chronicle Herald management has been so inflexible in their negotiating that it raises a lot of questions about their long-term intentions for the paper. In an era of media job cuts and newspaper sales, and in the context of the Maritime media monopoly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Herald ownership was deliberately trying to bust the union in order to make the paper a more enticing purchase. The obvious buyer would be Irving-owned Brunswick News, for a number of reasons that are outlined by CBC journalist Jacques Poitras in a Medium blog post called “Eight Reasons Why an Irving Buyout of the Chronicle-Herald Makes Sense.”

The coverage of the strike and the likely sale has been pretty fascinating. Poitras’s choice to write some analysis on a blog rather than for his employer is strange and possibly telling about some of the editorial inclinations at the CBC—though to the CBC’s credit, they did interview Poitras about his post and his analysis. Rachel Ward also wrote for CBC “The Chronicle Herald proposed contract could remove union, legal experts say.” It’s a strong piece, and it avoids the problem that journalists often run into of ignoring the power imbalance in a given situation by failing to provide enough of the context.

The Herald’s remaining workers have been covering the story themselves, while the Halifax Media Co-op has been providing intermittent coverage. They’ve also put out an offer to pay regular contributors to the Herald to contribute instead to the Media Co-op for the duration of the strike.

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