Canary workers uncover and address gross inequalities in our own workplace
This article is part of a series about the workers’ revolution which led to the Canary becoming the Canary Workers’ Co-op. You can read all the articles in the series here and visit our new, dedicated page here.
Up until this summer, the Canary had been run like a corporate capitalist organisation. But from June onwards, as a group of workers, we’ve been running the outlet as a co-operative. We’ve spent the last few months addressing workplace inequalities and overhauling the organisation in order to run it more fairly and efficiently.
To put it mildly, we’ve all been put through the wringer mentally and emotionally. It’s important to us, as a team, to set out the historic inequalities and what we’ve done to address them. Finally, it’s time for the values and ethos of the Canary to match the politics and ideals of the people who work here.
We’re all family here…
Many people will be familiar with how companies claim that “we’re all family here” – and use that to foster a culture of overworking. There’s a version of this which is becoming increasingly common in workplaces which seem progressive. It was only once the directors began leaving the company that it became clear how big the gulf was between directors and workers.
When I joined the Canary a couple of years ago, I was surprised at how open the directors seemed to be. We had the odd team meetings where one director would lay out the finances of the company, discuss profits, and circulate a spreadsheet which showed how much everybody was paid. Sounds positive enough – except that spreadsheet was a lie.
Directors were supposed to be paid £13 an hour, editors £12 an hour, and writers £11 an hour. In theory, fine. In practice, it was a very different story. As the article from Emily Apple and Steve Topple shows, directors were paying themselves significantly more money than anybody else via dividends and director’s loans. On top of this, Canary Media Ltd was paying directors’ full pensions contributions of 8% – while the workers’ only got 3%, having to pay 5% themselves. The pay structure we were told about was even more of a joke than we realised.
Over the years, the three directors’ duties involved the management of administration and finance for the company, speaking engagements, and, occasionally, journalism. What actually happened is that directors often wouldn’t work the days they were supposed to work, and a number of business-critical tasks were completed late, if at all. Directors would let important work fall by the wayside and regularly leave workers in the lurch. There was no mechanism through which the rest of the team could hold them accountable. We were only a family if we’re defining ‘family’ as a dysfunctional, chaotic, toxic nightmare.
Culture of gaslighting
Directors would often give workers vague platitudes about mental health. They would regularly explain their own mental states in great detail to the whole team. Unfortunately, they did not possess the skills of self-awareness and empathy that were necessary for safe mental health disclosures in a hierarchical organisation. Added to this, workers were at times on 65% sick pay, and at others on statutory sick pay, while directors received 100% sick pay. In practice, this meant that when directors needed to take time off for their physical or mental health, they could do so comfortably without losing any money. The rest of us, however, were effectively financially punished for our sickness.
There was a similar pattern for holiday allowances. Directors were able to (and often did) take large chunks of time off without notice or cover. Editors, meanwhile, have had to juggle cover and severely restrict the time we were able to take off. Given that our editorial team is made up of three chronically ill people, this was yet another slap in the face. Editors and writers had a limited amount of holiday allowance. And, because of the lower rate of sick pay, they would often use their annual leave as sick days.
It’s undeniable that there was a clear hierarchy in the old structure of the Canary. Directors would pretend that everything was equal, and that the external values of the company were the same as what was going on behind the scenes. This was absolutely not the case.
So, what did we do about it?
Everyone is now paid £12 an hour, regardless of role. Everybody who works at the Canary has 100% sick pay and equal holiday allowance. We have a system in place for people to take paid mental health leave. All of our contracts reflect this. We’re also in the process of moving away from short-term, piecemeal contracts that force people to work multiple jobs whilst on Universal Credit.
But here’s the thing: these concrete examples of parity don’t begin to make a dent in the culture the former directors created. Everyone would be expected to overwork themselves, and our outwardly-projected socialist politics would work to hide this. Directors often spoke to people in small groups or individually. They would repeatedly claim that if people were truly ‘passionate’ they’d do anything required of them.
Moreover, directors often lied to or concealed business decisions from workers. We were all lied to about the actual state of the finances, and the health of the company. This understandably caused concern about people potentially losing their jobs.
The directors created a culture of gaslighting and toxic, unsafe behaviour. Even during the last few months, when conversations around working conditions were happening openly amongst the team, outgoing directors obstructed this process.
The editorial team have long been forced to do the jobs of the directors, whilst also doing our actual jobs. Several people at the Canary had to put a life-altering amount of work and mental energy into making sure the company didn’t go down the shitter. Naturally, this has caused a huge amount of strain, and the last few months have been draining and chaotic for all of us. We’re not rich or powerful people with connections that will help us fall upwards. We’re not legacy journalists or corporate hacks.
An outlet we can finally be proud of
We’re all committed to doing this work because we believe in each other as a team, and more importantly, because we believe in the work that we do. There is no separation between our workers and our work – we live the realities of the communities we write about.
Nobody who works here is only a journalist. We’re all activists, community organisers, and people with lived experience of the things we report. Now that we’re not constrained by dodgy bosses and toxic directors, we can finally get on with the work we all believe in.
Written by Maryam Jameela
Featured image via Unsplash/John Vicente
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