Do CBC workers hate their employer?

Talk to any veteran of the CBC for a while, especially CBC expats, and eventually you’ll hit the deep well of vitriol that lurks within. It seems that while CBC employees love their jobs, and may even believe deeply in the “institution,” they hate their employer.

The dominant workplace metaphor at the CBC appears to be “hearty bands of dedicated workers making good shows despite their employer.”

Listen to the lockout podcasts and you’ll hear this hatred loud and clear: much of the commentary is simply about the indignity of the lockout, and it’s not unlike what you’d hear from the archetypal spouse whose partner leaves them for a younger lover despite their years of selfless toil.

It’s certainly not unusual to hate your employer — when I worked for a Thomson newspaper there was certainly no love lost for Mr. Thomson (I once received applause at a union meeting for saying I’d rather have Ken Thomson down on his knees in front of me rather than the other way around). But I think that it’s rare to have a situation where employees are, generally speaking, passionately interested in and involved in their jobs while simultaneously seething about the conditions of their employment. At best this leads to helpful “creative tension.” But at worst it’s just plain unhealthy.

Even it the CBC and the Media Guild work out their immediate differences and the CBC unlocks the doors, I can’t imagine this problem can be negotiated away. If anything, the lockout is, by getting employees out on the streets with nothing to do but talk to each other 20 hours a week, going to deepen the gulf.

Despite the several layers of democracy and bureaucracy between us, “we the people” are the real employer of the 5,500 locked out workers, and the CBC is, in theory, negotiating on our behalf. What can we do to change the employment dynamic at the corporation so that we’re not employing public broadcasters who, well, hate us.


steve's picture
steve on September 1, 2005 - 18:08 Permalink

You’ve hit the nail on the head with the observation that CBC employees have what might be called a complicated relationship with their employer.

I’ve worked at the CBC for seven years now, in two provinces, as part of two different unions, as a casual, contract and finally last year a full-time employee. I love my job and many days I wonder at how lucky I am to be doing something I love within an organization that has the considerable resources and reputation that the CBC does. I don’t really want to work anywhere else.

That said, there are occasional frustrations with the way the corporation is managed. I think you’re right that this is inevitable in any large organization. But I think you’re right too that CBC employees seem to reserve a special sort of heightened contempt for what can be loosely termed “management” (I think many of us are occasionally guilty of demonizing all managers, who are only people after all, and not a maniacal cabal of beancounters; many of them are very dedicated and very competent, and it’s important not to forget that). There are any number of reasons for this.

Clearly there have been bad decisions (Moving the national to 9:00 PM, the “Canada Now” experiment,pairing Michael Enright and Avril Benoit) that are announced with much fanfare and then quickly reversed. These repeated reversals gradually erode confidence in the people who are making the big decisions.

(It’s funny if anything the lockout has galavanized a new generation of younger employees to despise their bosses. When I first started there was sort of a divide between bitter old-timers who survived the punishing job cuts of the early 90’s and the new fresh-faced youngsters. Now many of those youngsters are getting their first taste of what it’s like to feel victimized by your employer.)

I think it’s also natural that a large organization of journalists, who are paid to be skeptical, are going to be more suspicious (some might say paranoid) of management’s ideas and orders. Every day we go out and question people about why they do things, and so it just comes naturally to us to put our bosses under equal scrutiny.

But I think much of the reason for the divide is the fact that we are a public broadcaster. Many CBCer’s (myself included) are very earnest about that. People sometimes mock us or accuse us of self-importance, but many of us feel a real duty not necessarily to the CBC, but to Canadians — our friends and neighbours. We want to do good work and we want to spend your dollars efficiently. So when we see what we perceive to be bad decisions at a management level, it’s not only personally frustrating but it’s an affront to the people who pay our salaries, the taxpayers. If you work for a private company and the boss wants to piss money away or provide a lower level of service for his clients, that’s really his problem and his shareholders’ problem. But when it happens at the CBC, it’s every Canadian’s problem, and I think CBC employees and yes some managers are sensitive to that.

The tension, in some ways, is natural and even healthy. The divide is there because people are really passionate about what they do.

What’s happening now is really about two competing visions of the best way to run an organization for the benefit of Canadians. That raises strong feelings on both sides, and it should. It’s important.

Obviously this whole mess is unpleasant for a lot of people, but one positive effect is that it’s forced everyone to consider what being a public broadcaster is, and whether or not it’s important to them. Once the lockout is over, I imagine it will be tense and difficult in some offices for returning workers to rebuild a relationship with their bosses. But hopefully people on both sides will come back with a renewed sense of pride at having taken a stand for something they really believe in.

Robert Paterson's picture
Robert Paterson on September 1, 2005 - 20:33 Permalink

On the money Peter! The wound feels like one of betrayal and the trajectory is as you say like a marriage where trust has gone and only the bad aspects accrue until there is a split.

If I was the PM, I would have to fear that the CBC is now on a death trajectory.

If I was the PM I would know that Canada needs both a national voice and a series of local voices — if we lose them all we have are commercial rock stations and the Fox perspective of fear and the “other”. I would seek out new leadership that wanted to build a quality voice again and I would fire everyone connected to this idea of running the CBC like Clear Channel. It would be our only chance

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on September 1, 2005 - 20:59 Permalink

Addendum — I posted this a couple of years ago — I think that it makes sense in the context of your post Peter

My friend Andrew Clarke sent me this about Simone Weill’s views that most work was in fact slavery

Here’s the logic chain:

1. Work is of fundamental spiritual importance because it offers us an anchoring connection to the present. If we don’t achieve this connection regularly, our minds become too “unchained” and roam around in the past and the future. This part is not too far from the whole Zen notion of the role of “every day living”.

2. Work is always organized in the context of a hierarchy (she got a lot of flack about this from her Marxist friends who believed that this was not true). The fundamental thing that differentiates an oppressive hierarchy from a non-oppressive one is the notion of consent. If you give your consent to participate in the hierarchy, you’re free, and work assumes its proper spiritual role. If you don’t give consent, you’re a slave.

3. Your ability to give consent is dependent on your ability to perceive the connection of your work to the overall work of the hierarchy, and to your belief that the hierarchy’s work is “good”. If you cannot perceive the connection, then by definition you cannot give your consent, and you are therefore a slave.

4. Modern methods of organizing production (and she was talking about the factory experience here) either intentionally or unintentionally remove our sense of connection to the whole, which destroys our ability to give consent, which by definition makes us slaves.

There you have it! Amazing that she wrote all this down between 1940 and 1943.?

Clark's picture
Clark on September 2, 2005 - 03:05 Permalink

I am curious to exactly how the CBC is managed.

My mother worked in various roles within the CBC for 25 years or more. In all that time when I was growing I am sure I remember her stating some contempt for “those in Ottawa” but I don’t remember her having anything negative to say about local management. In fact I don’t remember her ever saying much about having to answer to a boss. Are their management hierarchies at the local level? Do they have any power?

It seems in my general remembrance of how she described things, totally different from my experience in a “different media” production environment.

steve rukavina's picture
steve rukavina on September 2, 2005 - 03:29 Permalink

Hi clark.

In CBC radio, which is my bailiwick, there are regional managers in each province. There’s usually one uber-boss in charge of radio and TV, and then a couple of sub-bosses in charge of radio arts, radio news, TV, and operations respectively.

Anyone below them, such as executive directors and assignment editors, is usually in the journalists union.

Then there are whole bunch of bosses in Toronto with exotic titles who are the real uberlords and have the real power to chart the direction the network is headed in.

That’s about as well as I can explain it.

Kevin O's picture
Kevin O on September 5, 2005 - 18:41 Permalink

There are four entities involved in the CBC. In no particular order they are: taxpayers, audience, management, and unionized workers. Each has a special role. Taxpayers fund the effort, the audience gives it a purpose, workers make the product and management fit the product to the purpose.

It’s not that CBC workers can’t get along with us (taxpaying audience) by virtue of their rooted antagonism with CBC management. What appears clear to me is that those who make the product are doing a far better job than those who’s job it is to fit it to the purpose/mandate.

The taxpayer has been sold out twice. Once by our elected representatives, who for years and years have promised “stable funding”, and once again by our (CBC) management who have, with too-frequent regularity, managed to piss off employees and government and the taxpaying audience.

Chopping Compass to half an hour (and less than half the resources) while it had the ~same number~ of viewers as the Toronto equivalent (after they doubled their numbers) is just plain stupid (this clearly was a situation crying out for fairness not equality). The Toronto program was drawing from a population 20 to 30 times larger than Compass (which at the time was one of the top rated (if not #1) local news program on the continent) but could manage to appeal to the same number of eyeballs.

I really do understand that CBC management has a tremendously difficult job — but so do the people who create the programs. I recognize that management gets most stuff right most of the time in the normal course of events. But CBC management owes us (me) an explaination as to why the CMG offer is unacceptable to them. I’ve read managment’s (very poorly worded) plaints and statements on their website, and I’ve read the CMG offer. I just can’t understand what it is that CBC management wants that CMG hasn’t offered… *unless* what they really want is to bust the union plain and simple.

Part of me seriously wonders if management just kind of “rolled the dice” on this one — someone with more bravado than purpose saying, “just watch me, the union will roll over on this one…”.