The Labouring of Communication

Scholarship in communication studies has tended to cluster around the exploration of three intertwined topics: media, messages, and audiences. Those who focus on media tend to look at questions of power and control, including media ownership and the social, political, and economic relations that are at play in the construction of messages and of audiences. Studies concentrating on messages tend to look at the content of the messages themselves, ranging from news to propaganda to advertising, and at the discursive and technological forms these messages take. Those concentrating on audiences tend to look at the way individuals or groups receive, make sense of, understand, act on, ignore, or incorporate messages into their daily lives. Though the field has produced rich and varied work, one aspect has received startlingly little attention: labour. Intellective and physical labour are required to produce messages and the technologies used to disseminate them. Receiving and acting on messages also requires labour. And yet, communications scholars rarely address the various forms of labouring. In addition, the organizations that represent media and information workers, and the presentation of labour in the media, also receive relatively little attention. As the articles in this collection show, some researchers are now working in this area. But it is probably accurate to conclude that if, as Dallas Smythe (1977) famously concluded, communication is the blind spot of western Marxism, then labour remains a blind spot of western communication studies.

This special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication attempts to illuminate that blind spot by shining the spotlight on labour and on the organizations that speak for - or bargain on behalf of - the men and women whose labour is fundamental to media, messages, and audiences. The title of this issue, the Labouring of Communication, is inspired by Michael Denning's conception of the labouring of culture (1996, pp. xvi-xvii). Denning's masterful cultural history of the United States in the middle years of the twentieth century, The Cultural Front (1996), uses the phrase to sum up a number of inter-related themes, all of which put labour at the forefront of the cultural struggles of the era. The period from the Great Depression to the 1950s saw the word "labour" join "work" "industry" or "toil" as key words in the vocabulary of cultural workers. As a result, the language itself was "laboured." Those years also saw the increased influence on - and participation of - working-class Americans in the arts and culture. This was largely the result of a rapid expansion of mass education and mass entertainment, as children of immigrants and working-class families grew up to become artists and employees of the cultural industries and as American workers became the primary audience for those industries. Denning also uses the labouring of culture to refer to the new visibility of the labour that went into cultural production. He contends that one of the central narratives of the era was the organization of cultural workers into labour unions, including teachers, newspaper reporters, motion picture actors, and radio stars as well as the workers whose technical expertise ensured that people could watch the movies, listen to the music, and communicate with each other about how to consume the products of the cultural front. The phrase is also a reminder that culturally and politically, the middle years of the last century were characterized by working people embracing social democracy, not simply New Deal liberalism. Finally, Denning contends that the labouring of culture connotes one of the earliest conceptions of labour: the work that leads to a birth. The labouring of culture, therefore, entailed work and toil, and it had its successes and failures. "To labor is to plod, to be hampered, to pitch and roll in a storm. In all these senses, the cultural front was a laboring, an incomplete and unfinished struggle to rework American culture, with hesitations, pauses, defeats and failures" (p. xvii).

The labouring of communication deals with similar themes. For one, it attempts to bring into the field of communication studies a clearer sense of the work that goes into communication and culture, and of the workers who perform it. Rather than remaining on the fringes of the discipline where it may be treated instrumentally or, more frequently, ignored or dismissed, labour and those who perform it become part of the common vocabulary of communications scholarship. This is especially important given the growth of employment in the communication and related knowledge industries. The labouring of communication also takes up the question of worker organizing, ranging from the creation of social movement unions that attempt to represent the unorganizable to the efforts of conventional unions to organize new groups of cultural workers, recapture lost work (and lost workers), rebalance the relationship between employers and employees, and not only survive but thrive in a globalizing economy. Unions and worker movements are cultural and political organizations as well as economic ones and it is important to interrogate what that means for their members and for the larger society. As the articles in this issue demonstrate, both unions and worker associations are strong and growing stronger in the communication and information industries. The labouring of communication also raises policy questions, ranging from whether and how to regulate mass media and mass messages to how to deal with skilled, creative workers who produce ideas, rather than goods. Finally, the phrase recognizes that the labouring of communication is a difficult and painstaking phenomenon, full of victories and failures. To paraphrase Denning, it is a difficult, imperfect and unfinished struggle, but as this volume shows, a fascinating area for scholars to explore.

The articles in this special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication were written by scholars working from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of countries. The authors also come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including communication studies, economics, history, political science, industrial relations, sociology, and journalism studies. The common factor is that they put labour at the forefront of their contribution to this volume. Taken together, the articles published here demonstrate the rich and diverse possibilities for research and scholarship that can be achieved by the labouring of communication. Most gratifyingly, they show that there is a growing community, in Canada and abroad, for whom the labouring of communication is the labour of scholarship.

Elizabeth Fones-Wolf of the University of West Virginia analyses the efforts of American trade unions to reform radio broadcasting in the years immediately after the Second World War. Unions were concerned about unchecked commercialism, the lack of public service, and especially about how corporate control of radio impeded labour's access to the airwaves. Her article focuses on their efforts to convince the Federal Communications Commission to engage in regulatory activism and accept the notion of "listeners' rights." Though the struggle was unsuccessful, the issues it raised still resonate, as McMaster University's Amanda Coles shows in her article on the attempts by Canadian unions to intervene before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Coles describes the creation of the Coalition of Canadian Audio-visual Unions (CCAU) in response to a new policy on dramatic programming on television in 1999. Like the unions described by Fones-Wolf, the coalition Coles analyses sought to cast labour unions as representing not just their own interests but the public interest by fighting for quality programming.

As we might expect in dealing with communications unions, many struggles are played out in the media or as contests over the media. James Tracy from Florida Atlantic University examines how U.S. newsweeklies covered one of the largest labour disputes in U.S. media history, the 1962-1963 International Typographical Union strike which shut down New York's newspapers for almost five months. He shows that the coverage was organized into two frames. The first attributed the shutdown to the personal ambitions of a single man, the leader of the New York ITU local. The second frame focused on a victimized public, which at times included the broader economy and the publishers themselves. Missing in this coverage, he writes, was a fair or serious-minded representation of the union side. Kirsten Kozolanka of Carleton University finds some similar patterns in her analysis of two Ontario public service strikes. She details the communications strategy of the newly elected Mike Harris government, which relied on creating the perception of a crisis in the polity, then framing labour as oppositional to the public interest of resolving that crisis. Her article also looks at how the Toronto newspapers covered the strikes in 1996 and 2002 and finds that the media were caught in the communications offensives that made it difficult for them to assess the government's massive legislative and policy assault.

If media coverage of strikes is problematic for communications workers, then one solution is to launch their own publications during a labour dispute. Marc Edge and Karl Hardt survey a variety of strike newspapers across North America before presenting a case study of the Castlegar Citizen, a British Columbia strike paper that operated from 2000 to 2005. (Hardt was assistant editor of the paper.) They find that the success of strike newspapers depends on a number of factors, including the will of newsworkers and their unions to oppose increasingly powerful ownership groups, and the support of the local community, including advertisers.

Strikes are the exception rather than the rule for most communication workers. Their daily struggles include debates over control of creative work and technology, questions of identity, and contestation over the relative rise of precarious or contract work compared to permanent employment. The University of Western Ontario's Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter of Simon Fraser University examine the crisis of overwork in the glamorous new digital play industry. Still regarded by many young workers as one of the coolest ways to make a living, the industry has become increasingly subject to corporate processes that not only encourage but require workers to put in extreme hours. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter also discuss the gendered nature of the work and they look at attempts by workers to escape their predicament through legal action, educational efforts, entrepreneurial flight, and union organizing. Enda Brophy of Queen's University takes us deeper into the heart of digital capitalism by examining the efforts by workers at Microsoft to create a labour organization. Brophy explores the evolution of the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers, originally created to organize the so-called permatemps at Microsoft, and shows why high-technology workers have been extraordinarily difficult to organize into a conventional trade union. Susan Ashley, from York and Ryerson universities, examines efforts by another type of cultural worker - heritage interpreters, whose job is to interact with the public at museums and heritage sites - to preserve and promote their identity as public intellectuals. Ashley, who has 25 years of experience as a front-line interpreter, finds that, like game designers, interpreters are increasingly subjected to the pressures of commercialization. Nonetheless, many remain dedicated to the idea of sharing knowledge and to genuine debate over ideas.

Communications workers interested in trying to create, or protect, a professional identity might look to the article by François Demers and Florence Le Cam of Laval University, which examines the successful efforts by Québec journalists to assert professional status as a self-organized group. They find that trade unions played a critical role in this struggle, and that a firm link between unionism and the collective identity of journalists was a key feature of the Québec media during much of the twentieth century. That configuration is now being challenged by the spread of non-professional (and non-union) journalism on the Internet. Chris Bodnar, of Carleton and Simon Fraser universities, looks at a different form of self-identification among cultural workers: the rise of a social movement of precarious workers. Focusing on television and film workers in France, he shows that the ways these workers define their labour is often at odds with government, employer, and even union understandings of labour in the sector. He argues that the movement might best be understood as an example of syndicalism, enacted outside the traditional categories of the workplace and professional crafts.

The impact of technology on work is the focus of Chang-de Liu's study of Taiwanese newspaper workers. Liu, who works at National Chung-Cheng University in Taiwan, finds that the introduction of information and communication technologies has not only increased the workload of reporters but allowed for an intensification of managerial control. In the process, reporters' traditional skills, experience and knowledge have been devalued. The trend in employment is to push experienced reporters into retirement, then save salary costs by hiring young reporters. Economist Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay of the Télé-université of Université du Québec à Montréal and Renaud Paquet and Elmustapha Najem of Université du Québec en Outaouais take up the promises of telework as a way to give workers more control over their time and a better balance in their lives. Working from home has been presented as a way of allowing workers - especially women - to meet their family obligations and still get the job done. Their research finds, however, that only a small percentage of teleworkers work out of their homes because of family obligations. Two-thirds do so because their employers ask them to. Finally, our article examines how communications workers' unions have responded to the twin forces of technological and corporate convergence by undertaking a form of convergence of their own. It analyses convergence as a technological and institutional process and as a myth that contains utopian visions of universal connectedness. The article focuses on how labour convergence played out in two 2005 labour disputes, the lockouts at the CBC and Telus, and concludes that it can help counter the power of the employers.

The co-editors of this volume would like to thank their home universities, Queen's University and Carleton University, for their support in producing this special issue. At Carleton, we are especially grateful to Feridun Hamdullahpur, Vice-President (Research and International), and Katherine Graham, Dean of the Faculty of Public Affairs. At Queen's, we thank Robert Silverman, former Dean, and Alistair W. MacLean, current Dean, of the Faculty of Arts and Science, and Rob Beamish, Head of the Department of Sociology. We are grateful for their encouragement and for their financial support for this publication.


Denning, Michael. (1996). The cultural front: The laboring of American culture in the twentieth century. London: Verso.

Smythe, Dallas. (1977). Communications: Blind spot of Western Marxism. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 1(3), pp. 1-27.

Catherine McKercher
Carleton University

Vincent Mosco
Queen's University

  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.