The internet blew up today with links to a piece about scheduling and metro Transit written by self proclaimed city booster Brenden Sommerhelder on news website openfile.ca. It’s caught on largely for two reasons: first, it taps into widespread discontent with the ATU and its membership for withholding their labour during contact negotiations with their employer. Second, it fills a void left by incompetent communications work by the city and the ATU and a lack of any long-form reporting by the daily papers in the city.
It’s a breezey read and compiles a lot of information widely available online but it’s highly problematic for a few reasons:
1) It’s not reporting, it’s opinion.
It’s an opinion piece, not an act of neutral journalism. Sommerhalder is not a reporter (nor does he himself claim to be) and his reliance on anonymous sources is worrisome as a result. When Tim B., Bethany Horne, Alex Boutiler or Dan Arsenault quote an anonymous source I am skeptical of it, but they have credentials, reputations and experience which to some degree persuade me to have some faith in their judgement to use that particular source and to decide not to attribute anything to them by name. When a blogger does it I have no such reason to place my faith in that person’s decision making process, nor do I know their relationship to their editor. If a person simply posts that on a self-hosted blog then it’s obvious to me
Of course one of the hallmarks of online journalism/journalism 2.0/webwriting/news blogging/whateverthebuzzwordis is that anyone can become a journalist, and I have some sympathy for that position, but one thing that traditional journalism has gotten right that online publications have largely struggled with is the separation between editorial/opinion content and news reporting. This is where my problem with the portrayal of this article comes in: it is an opinion piece written by a good opinions writer which is being portrayed as a news piece. No where is it flagged as an opinions piece and it is described as being “Reported on by Brenden Sommerhalder.” That editorial lack of separation between opinions writing and news reporting is problematic.
Sommerhalder doesn’t simply report facts, but also shares fairly heavy handed opinions on the topic. That’s not his fault but it’s a problem if it is being portrayed by the publication as a neutral piece of news reporting.
2) Sommerhalder’s opinions are only half right.
Sommerhalder essentially has two main conclusions in his piece. First, he argues that the a move from run-pick to block-pick scheduling would reduce some of the cost overruns associated with overtime. Second, he claims that “something as important and integral to an organization as how it schedules its employees’ work should happen collaboratively, not unilaterally, and not at the contract bargaining table.”
Sommerhalder’s first point is correct, but ultimately not all that helpful. Block-picking will help curtail some of the overtime problems, but there are numerous other ways to curtail overtime costs without throwing out a centuries old scheduling system which is overwhelmingly favoured by employees. What Sommerhalder does not do is compare the relative savings from block-picking to other potential solutions that could be introduced alongside a modified run-pick system. Of course, this isn’t Sommerhalder’s fault: the executive of ATU 508 have done an awful job communicating with the public and have not been forthcoming with creative solutions. “Block-picking could save some money” moves the conversation ahead a few inches but still leaves us without a comparative framework to work in.
While there I do partially agree with Sommerhalder’s first point I think his second argument is fundamentally wrong. The only mechanism to negotiate scheduling procedures in a work place is by writing it the fuck down. You don’t just sort of casually talk about how 700 employees might have their schedule made: you write it down as a contract. And if you’re negotiating contracts between workers and the employer then that bargaining is done collectively with the democratically elected union officials acting as the representative of the employees. These sorts of scheduling issues are exactly the sorts of items that collective bargaining is meant to deal with and are in fact the only reasonable way to do it under our current system of industrial legality. The only time that employees can legally withhold their labour is after the contract has expired, therefor negotiating a scheduling during the life of a CBA means that employees have no recourse what-so-ever if the employer decides to unilaterally institute a form of scheduling they disagree with. Under the current system we are saddled with, if you want negotiation, not employers dictating work place schedule then you need to bargain it after the previous CBA has expired.
The way openfile.ca has portrayed Sommerhalder’s piece as news is fundamentally problematic, not in what it says about the author or the issue of the ATU 508/Metro Transit labour dispute but because its a reflection of the wider problem of online publications not establishing a division between opinion and reporting.
The article itself is a reflection of a problem specific to the labour MT/ATU 508 labour dispute: The union leadership has done an awful job communicating through both traditional means and lame social media options, and the general population of Halifax is annoyed and looking for a solution that appears to be the quickest way to save money and get the buses back on the road. The braindead decision by ATU 508 picket captains to set up pickets to delay plowing this morning just put a finer point on anti-union sentiment on the same day that this piece hit the internet. With the current climate of public opinion on the strike and the constant union PR miscues even generally neutral opinion pieces and reporting like Sommerhalder’s becomes fodder for internet rageaholics who want to fire all the bus drivers and send them back to Russia.
Edit: OpenFile editor Bethany Horne tells me that she verified Sommerhalder’s anonymous sources.