The Toronto chapter of Sing Tao Daily is the first union of Canadian Chinese-language media workers established in 2001. Subsequently, in 2006, the World Journal (Toronto chapter) was also organized into a union. In 2010, Ming Pao Daily employees followed suit and organized a labour union. The unions of the three Chinese-language newspapers were all members of the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild (SONG), which was originally affiliated with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, now Unifor Local 87-M.
Brief History on Sing Tao Organizing in Toronto
On May 3, 2000, the staff of the Editorial Department (STD) passed 30 to 3 votes to join the Southern Ontario Media Guild (SONG) and established the first union of Canadian Chinese-language newspapers. Soon afterwards on August 11, staff from other departments (STN), including printing, administration, advertising, and production, also joined the trade union with 40 to 20 votes. Sing Tao employees organized a union to gain greater bargaining power. The employees endured a few short-term hardships in exchange for long-term improvements such as the salary increases and improved working conditions.
The beginning stages of forming a union were not easy. A journalist who participated in the formation of a union was fired. The union filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Commission, and the reporter was reinstated to his original job and compensated for his salary during the period of separation. The reporter gave the full amount of compensation back to the union, and took an active part in the union activities. After many years, this journalist became the chairman of the Sing Tao trade union. And his dismissal was a powerful driving force for his colleagues to actively organize and support unionizing. The union also filed a complaint with the Ontario Ministry of Labour and successfully recovered $64,000 CAD of overtime pay for 12 employees. The employer and employees then started the first contract negotiation, and the negotiation team, which was selected by the employees, faced various challenges.
Before the establishment of a trade union:
- Employees had to work six days every other week.
- Management arbitrarily decided how bonuses were allotted – and it was often unfair
- Pay deductions, and no payment of overtime pay
- The salary was extremely low. The part-time employees had been frozen at $8 per hour for eight years.
- Failure to enforce health and safety regulations.
- There are endless dictatorships by management.
After several months of negotiations, the company still did not bulge. So, the members voted in favour of a strike, and a picket line was organized in front of the company building on March 30, 2001. During the strike, Sing Tao Daily workers received a lot of support from other trade unions and allies.
A well-known labour leader in the Chinese community, Winnie Ng, brought activists from different unions to the picket line almost every day to cheer up morale. To protect unfairness against the workers, Winnie Ng was detained by the police for blocking high-level vehicles on Sing Tao property. Before the picketers could even send their condolences to her, Winnie sent a handwritten letter encouraging those on the picket lines not to be discouraged, but to persevere.
In the letter, she questioned, “I am the only Chinese, and none of the other Westerners have been arrested. Should we be treated like this as Chinese?” The striking members printed her handwritten letter as a leaflet with the title “True Feelings and Sincerity”, and went to the Chinese community to promote the strike action and to discuss racial discrimination against the Chinese.
Victory at Sing Tao Daily
After many strike actions such as the blocking of newspaper delivery vehicles, denunciations of strikebreakers, and sending representatives to attend the Torstar’s shareholders meeting (Torstar is a major shareholder of Sing Tao in Canada), the workers reached a first collective bargaining agreement with Sing Tao management. The strike lasted for seven weeks. The union members passed their first collective contract by secret ballot on May 14, 2001.
The union contract provided these long-term benefits:
- During the three-year contract period up to December 2003, employees received an average salary increase of 18%. All year-end bonuses are included in the salary base.
- Most part-time employees increased their hourly wages by $1 per year from 2001 to 2003.
- Implement a five-day work system. Most employees are entitled to two consecutive days off.
- Establish an overtime payment mechanism. At present, all work more than 38.5 hours per week is paid, and over 40.5 hours will have 1.5 times the overtime pay.
The staff of the World Journal passed a relatively weak number of votes to join SONG in 2006, and successfully won the first collective agreement in 2007, but the results were relatively limited. After layoffs in 2012, employees who supported the union left one after another; two years later, some employees successfully mobilized to dissolve the union. Eventually, World Journal also ceased operations in Canada at the end of 2015.
Organizing of Ming Pao Daily Newspaper
In May 2010, Ming Pao employees started a secret union movement. About a week later, the organizing committee expanded to 12 people, and it took 3 months to secretly sign about 35% of union cards, leaving 5% of the threshold for legally applying to organize a union vote. The organizers were not able to get more support beyond that. Faced with a key decision, the Organizing Committee continued to conduct a secret signing operation. It was, however, inefficient.
The inside organizers deemed that it was necessary to no longer sign cards in secret because colleagues needed to see someone willing to stand up and lead, and to give them courage to participate in this campaign for justice. At the end of August, they announced the organizing activities, thereby alerting the employer. From then on, the employer tried every tactic to stop the organizing.
First, the employer published a story about Ming Pao’s employees forming a union on the front page of their own newspaper, and questioned whether Ming Pao’s employees would join a union and would cause layoffs in the future? In between the lines of the front-page story, it was guiding employees on how to withdraw from the union. The messaging in the story affected the momentum of the organizing drive as colleagues were worried about layoffs. These anti-union behaviors clearly violate labour laws, which protect workers’ rights to choose to join a trade union. The actions of our employers also set the stage for us to win the “first contract arbitration.”
A few days later, the management suddenly arranged a plenary meeting during a time when most of the organizing committee members were not in the office. The employer promised to raise wages, increase benefits and improve working conditions. This message was very clear, with the promise that employees would be able to express their demands directly to the management, without the existence of a union. However, some of us questioned how the employer fulfills his promises outside of the contract? We inoculated our colleagues with the response that a written contract is more reliable than a verbal promise. This unexpected meeting of the management funneled more internal discussions among the employees about the benefits of joining a union.
About two weeks later, on September 14, 2010, Ming Pao employees passed 84 to 47 votes to join SONG. But there was great difficulty bargaining the first contract with Ming Pao management. Management tried to lay off 10 union supporters, including the chairperson and vice chairperson of the negotiation team. After more than a year of negotiating deadlock, a majority voted to take strike action.
Ming Pao workers saw the collective strength of the labour movement when sisters and brothers from other places emerged to give support. The Labour Council had also invited them to share their stories at their regular monthly meetings and mobilized other unions in different sectors to give picket line support., and financial assistance to help sustain the 73-day strike under harsh winter conditions. The strike was settled through first contract arbitration that brought major improvements. The Labour Relations Board ordered that management to restore the original positions of all laid-off members and compensate for the loss of wages during the separation period.
Toronto was the only place in North America where the majority of Chinese language media workers won a union. Their efforts paved the way for a much stronger voice in the community and the broader labour movement.