So now Vancouver has two alternate newspapers. Or is it three? Or one? What is happening, anyway?
That something has been happening at the (old) Georgia Straight was obvious from a few cryptic articles in the paper over the last couple of months. That the issue involved the desire of some staff members for the paper to become a legal co-operative was also obvious. But little more was told.
With yesterday morning's occupation of the (old) Georgia Straight office, the necessity of full discussion of the issues involved falls upon all of us.
Five years ago, some people had the idea of starting a newspaper in Vancouver that would challenge, at least in a small way, the domination over print media exercised by the Sun and the Province and their vassal, Pacific Press.
The namex Georgia Straight was suggested (by Glenn Lewis), money was raised, and the first issue came out on May 5, 1967. The names on the masthead of this first issue of a co-operatively produced newspaper were Pierre Coupey, Dan McLeod, Peter Hlookoff, Harry Rankin (as a contributing editor), Rick Kitaeff, Tony Grinkus, Milton Acorn, Leonard Minsky, John Leggett, Stan Persky, Carol Millan and Gerry Gilbert among others.
That basic list of people continued, with a few changes, until the fifth issue when Dan McLeod was listed as Head Editor rather than as one of the two Co-Ordinating Editors as had previously been the case.
By the seventh issue, there were Co-Editors again -- Dan McLeod and Fred Latremouille. And there was also one of those cryptic announcements stating that four editors -- Pierre Coupey, Peter Hlookoff, Milton Acorn, and Tony Grinkus -- had resigned from the paper. The Straight announced that the four were going to form “a new (and different) paper and we have agreed to lend them our support.”
Two major changes had taken place by that time. Dan McLeod had incorporated the Georgia Straight with himself as sole shareholder. And the only person remaining on the masthead from the first issue was Dan McLeod. The co-op had become a corporation.
From those early days the Straight continued, with numerous charges being laid against the paper and some of its personnel. Dan McLeod as owner-editor-publisher bore the brunt of this unjust attack from the legal system, but the paper continued.
During this time there were often conflicts over the direction of the paper, or over the way it was run. Many people worked for the paper during the years, but of any one individual, the greatest contribution undoubtedly came from Dan McLeod.
During this period of a few years, the Straight operated in a variety of fashions, but basically Dan functioned as ultimate decision maker.
Sometimes, though, the operating principle was different. In a letter dated May 18, 1970, "To All Staff Members Of The Georgia Straight," certain principles were laid out. The letter reads as follows:
“The purpose of this letter is to inform you of a number of resolutions passed at the Board of Directors meeting held on May 15, 1970.
"Barry Cramer, myself, Leo McGrady, Stan Persky and Lani Almas were elected to the Board of Directors of the Georgia Straight Publishing Ltd. Dan McLeod still remains as a director. I have been elected Chairman of the Board.
"We have decided to formalize our policy of collective responsibility for publication of the Straight. There will no longer be separate positions such as Editor-in-Chief, Distribution Manager, Advertising Manager, and so on. Everyone working for the Straight will have an equal responsibility for all decisions on content of the paper to the hiring of the staff to the method of distribution and so on.
"Publishing the Straight in keeping with the principle of collective responsibility means that each person must ensure that nothing goes into the paper that could result in a criminal charge being laid or a civil action started. Essentially you should be guided by your own common sense, but if you have even the slightest doubt, get a legal opinion before publishing."
The letter was signed by Bob Cummings, President of the Georgia Straight, who once wrote the Occasional Nothings Column under the name of Wanis Kouri.
Eventually, this chronology gets to the present. Over the last nine months, there has been considerable internal discontent at the Straight over a variety of issues: sexism, operating principles, general outlook, and others. Sometimes Dan, as a staff member, was in the majority, sometimes in the minority.
A few months ago, however, the simmering conflict broke open again. The Georgia Straight had developed a considerable distribution network both in the city of Vancouver and outside, and was now distributing other newspapers and many books such as the B.C. Access Catalogue.
Dan informed the staff that he wished to set up the distribution network as a separate legal entity from the Georgia Straight but wholly owned by himself. Many staff members questioned this because they felt that they had some control over the Georgia Straight but would have none over the new distribution company. Our feeling was that if the new company was legally necessary as Dan had argued, then it should be wholly owned by Georgia Straight Publishing Ltd. (which also meant Dan). The thought behind this was that the paper was in financial difficulty, while the distribution company had money-making potential which could be used to expand the Straight
The staff pressed and, one afternoon at a staff meeting, Dan got angry and said "I don't care what you people think. I've instructed Leo [McGrady, his lawyer at the time] to go ahead with it."
For some of the people, that was a shock as they had believed until then that they did possess the power to collectively control the Straight.
Over the next few weeks there were a few meetings of people interested in seeing the paper become a collective and then on November 19 at a staff meeting, the whole matter came to a vote.
Two important resolutions were dealt with. The first stated: "That the ultimate decision-making power of the Georgia Straight shall reside in regular General Meetings of the staff as a whole, each member having one vote. No individual staff member, or group of staff members, or any outside forces may overrule the decisions of the General Meeting." This resolution passed unanimously, including Dan.
The second resolution stated: "That the General Meeting [which had become the decision-making body of the Straight] call upon Dan McLeod, who presently owns 100% of the Straight and of Greater Vancouver News Ltd. [the distribution company], to relinquish that legal ownership of the Georgia Straight, including all its assets, debts, and holdings and join as an equal member with the entire staff of the Georgia Straight." This vote passed by a 21 to 8 majority, with Dan opposing.
On November 29, we met again to hear Dan's answer. It was, not surprisingly, a "no." Dan said that he had been tried by a "kangaroo court," a "star chamber" without any chance to defend himself. He said that he felt that his good name had been slandered and that the people who wanted a co-operative weren't willing to clear that up. As his evidence, he used a statement written by one of the people who desired a co-operative. The main point in this written statement that seemed to anger Dan was a reference that could be interpreted to mean that Dan had made a great deal of money off the labour of Georgia Straight workers. No one who was there, including the writer of the statement, believed this, and said so. But many people were angered by the arrogance of Dan's response by his allegations against all of us who had considered ourselves in part his co-workers. The other main part of his charge was that a small group of politically-minded staff members had misled the great majority of the people into voting against his ownership.
Rather than take some precipitate action, the staff appointed a negotiating committee of three people to meet with Dan and to find out if there were any circumstances under which he would consider turning ownership over to the staff.
The first few sessions of negotiating meetings haggled over the presence of lawyers, with Dan rejecting all of the staff’s attempts at a compromise solution. For his part, Dan suggested that those who wanted to could set up their own paper, that Greater Vancouver News Ltd. would distribute it for them, .and that they could use the Straight's equipment to put the paper out
Now it was our turn to reject an offer. One reason was practical. With little in the way of material resources, it would be difficult to get a paper out for long. The winter is far from the best time to begin a venture like that. And thirdly, the Georgia Straight already existed and had a base and any new paper would find itself in competition with the Straight. Chances of survival would be slim and it would not represent a fair test of the principal of the co-operative.
But there was another equally important reason for the rejection. The staff members who desired the collective believe that the Georgia Straight has been built, not through the efforts of one person, but through the efforts of all of the people who have worked for the paper, and that includes all of us. Its equipment, such as the truck Dan uses for the business and as his personal vehicle are paid for through our efforts. In effect, we were saying the workers are the Straight.
Finally, though, negotiations began on a possible compromise. Dan had expressed two major fears -- that because the paper was in debt by a considerable amount, the change to a co-operative could make the situation even more precarious, perhaps even fatal; and that the paper would become too narrow politically or even too political and that such a change in content would also doom the paper.
We suggested a trial period of six months whereby Dan would retain legal ownership, but would have no power as owner. The paper would be operated as a cooperative and there would be a set of mutually-agreed-upon performance standards which the co-operative would have to meet. These standards were to cover areas such as sales, finances, mailing privileges, and quality of the paper. If they weren't met, ownership would revert to Dan without conditions. If they were met then, the paper would become a legal co-operative.
Further negotiation meetings were held and the conditions began to take more concrete shape. Many of the people who wanted a collective were fairly hopeful. During this same two month period, a few people had left the paper because they didn't think anything would come of the desire to form a co-operative, and the energy of many of the others waned. For many of us, the result of the negotiations was crucial.
On Monday, January 17, a negotiation meeting was held. Dan announced that under no circumstances would he relinquish legal ownership, and at a staff meeting later that day, he confirmed his decision, and said that people were free to stay under the old arrangement or they were free to leave.
That night, and Tuesday evening, we met and made the decision to occupy the premises at 56A Powell St. We realized that some of our fellow workers would support Dan against us. Most of them, we feel, are doing this out of confusion as to the issues or out of personal loyalty to Dan. A few, perhaps, are acting out of less noble motives.
Today there are two papers. Dan has probably called his the Georgia Straight. We were unable to do this as Dan has the name copyrighted and threatened to sue the printer if we were printed under the name Georgia Straight. The telephones at the office have been cut off and the mail is being held somewhere between limbo and the Post Office.
But we hope to have a phone soon, and to continue publishing. It is our desire to be relevant and responsive to our readers. Anyone who wants to support us or debate us is welcome to come to our office at 56A Powell St. and say hello.