Fax, Facts, and Globalization

I remember the first time I saw a fax machine. It was in early June 1984 and it was my first day working in the Halifax office of an electronic news clipping agency that had offices across Canada.

I was being shown how to read, clip and paste onto a page newspaper articles that were or could be of interest to a list of clients. But the person showing me how to do this was insistent that I had to hurry because the clippings had to be “ready to be sent to the Ottawa office before 8 o’clock.” She then walked me over to this machine (3M brand), told to place one page face down on it, dial a certain number, and when I would hear this beeping sound, press the “Send” button.

I did as I was told.

The screaching beeping stopped and suddenly, the machine sucked in the page I had placed on it. And dare I admit it: For the first few seconds as I tried to comprehend what was happening, I thought that somehow the page was being transported to the Ottawa office à la “Star Trek.”

But then the drum inside the machine started rolling and I finally understood that the device was scanning and encoding the page for transmission by telephone. I wasn’t aware until that moment that such a contraption existed. Two months later, I turned 19.

I worked 2 years for this agency, full-time at first in Halifax, then part-time from home in Moncton. This agency was a horrific employer, woefully underpaying its employees while expecting the moon of them and taking on clients that were socially and morally bankrupt (e.g., the South African embassy in Canada before the end of apartheid).

More than a year ago, I looked up the agency on the Web and wasn’t surprised to find it had a presence online. But today I did another search and found that the entity no longer exists. Moreover, I found, with no surprise whatsoever given how I remembered the agency’s appalling relations with its employees, that it was embroiled in a 3+-year anti-unionization battle in Quebec.

Then I recalled some of the exchanges I had had with the president of the company and how she clearly was an anti-government-subsidy capitalist who believed in ’80s-style trickle-down economics. Ask me now if I’m surprised that the agency has been denounced as “abnormally anti-union”…

In late 2001, her agency and its subsidiaries (which she co-owned with “the man of her life”) was bought out by a Swedish competitor which, in a short time, also bought out other competitors in Quebec and the U.S. Once the largest newsclipping service in Canada, the agency has been swallowed and there is hardly any competition today in the market.

What I’ll never know is whether globalization contributed more to the demise of the agency, or if the sell-off was the result of the president’s fatigue in fighting the attempts to unionize. What I find fascinating is that I “grew up” to become a fervent trade unionist, but I wasn’t so when I would deal with said president yet I disliked her so very much.

Even more interesting: I went on to earn a degree in Public Relations, while she went on to win a prestigious prize for PR practitioners in Quebec, less than one year after her firm was sold off.

I do have to give her credit — in fact, I always have — for her hard work. But knowing what I know, and believing what I believe about the status and image of public relations, I realize that it’s people of her ilk that make me bow my head in shame when I declare that I have a degree in public relations.