After a series of management shake-ups and unpopular policies, the Los Angeles Times made history in January when its newsroom voted 248-44 to unionize. It was the first time in the organization’s 136 years of operation.
So, why now?
Sally Davidow, communications director at the NewsGuild-CWA (who helped the Times organize), said the environment is changing in favor of unions for a number of reasons: “The victory at the L.A. Times has certainly sparked interest in other places, but also the atmosphere in general was sort of ripe for before that. The situation in the industry is very dire. People feel they can’t earn a decent living and they have no control over their work schedules. They really want a voice at work and equity for women and people of color. So, there are a lot of very important issues.”
Carl Hall, executive officer of Pacific Media Workers Guild, added, “People are starting to see that a union make sense. The news business is seeing more interest, and I think there will be an increase in interest as people realize they need a voice at work in order to have any real parity or ability to negotiate.”
With layoffs an inevitable factor in today’s environment, more and more newspapers and media organizations are opting to form unions as a way of securing equal pay and better benefits, and providing a safety net when those inevitable layoffs hit. In addition to Davidow and Hall, E&P spoke with several newspaper staffers who spearheaded the move to unionize at their papers and the guild reps that helped guide them.
Los Angeles Times Unionizes
According to Davidow, “There have been a lot of articles recently about how younger workers are more pro-labor since any generation since the 1930s.”
That’s certainly true for one of the key organizers at the L.A. Times. Kristina Bui is a copy editor and one of nine vice chairs in the Times’ new union. She recounts how seasoned newsroom vets advised her to not to get too comfortable at first.
“I graduated in 2013 and when I got here, people were really pessimistic,” she said. “A lot of mentors in the newsroom told me to keep looking and to find other jobs and to not get stuck here.”
It’s no secret the Times had been through several tumultuous years. This past year alone, the publication saw its third editor-in-chief in six months. Lewis D’Vorkin, the embattled former Forbes editor, lasted only five months as editor-in-chief before moving to a different position within Tronc, the paper’s parent company. He was laid off in April. Former publisher Ross Levinsohn took an unpaid leave of absence in January after sexual harassment allegations surfaced. Although he was cleared of any wrongdoing, he left his post at the Times to lead a new Tronc division.
“The timing lined up a lot for us,” Bui said. She explained that when Tronc hired Levinsohn and D’Vorkin “that pushed people to realize that Tronc did not have (their) best interests at heart. That was the last straw.”
Bui said the spark for the union began in December 2016 when Tronc decided to eliminate accrued vacation time. That, and a plan to “centralize web operations” across its properties, which would involve job cuts, motivated a few staffers to ask, “What if we called the NewsGuild?”
From there, “it kind of snowballed,” Bui said. “We really began organizing in earnest in May 2017. I started talking to my coworkers to get a feel for whether the frustration in the newsroom was enough to motivate people to take action, and clearly it was.”
The Times voted to unionize on Jan. 19, and on Feb. 7, Tronc sold the paper to local billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong for $500 million. (At press time, the sale is still pending and a contract between the Times’ new union and its new owner had not yet been reached.)
On March 15, there was a new round of layoffs at the Tronc-owned Chicago Tribune. The remaining staffers are now looking to unionize as well. (Editor’s Note: The newsroom voted in April to form a union.)
“If we hadn’t unionized, it would have been a lot easier for them to do what they did at the Tribune and what they’re doing at other Tronc papers in creating this centralized national newsroom,” Bui said.
Victory Leads to Inspiration
The success of the L.A. Times has inspired other papers, including the Missoula Independent, to unionize. Susan Elizabeth Shepard, a staff reporter and part of the organizing committee at the Montana newspaper, said that the L.A. Times was a primary inspiration, along with the nearby Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming. The Star-Tribune had no comment on their intent to unionize, which was announced in February.
In April 2017, the Independent was sold to Lee Enterprises. (Editor’s Note: On April 27, the Southern Illinoisan, also owned by Lee Enterprises, announced its intention to form a union.)
“Talks about forming a union had begun last year and increased after we were told we’d be moving into the Missoulian building,” Shepard said. The Independent was told in February it would be relocating to the offices of its former rival (and now sister paper), the Missoulian.
At the Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger, the effort to unionize in 2016 was a brief “five months from the first discussions to the vote,” general assignment reporter Gary White told E&P. But the process with parent company, GateHouse Media, has been far from smooth.
White said, “After we turned in our cards to trigger an election, GateHouse officials and the internal management launched an aggressive campaign to deter us from forming a union. The publisher and other management figures threw out a good deal of misinformation, including the claim that anyone who voted for a union would be blackballed from the industry.” (A rep from GateHouse did not respond in time for this article.)
After the pro-union vote, Ledger Media Group publisher Kevin Drake said in a statement that the vote was “disappointing,” but that the newspaper “remained committed to producing quality journalism.”
Since the union has formed, White said, “The mood seemed to settle, although the publisher left for another paper within less than a year. Employees felt they had more say in how the newsroom was managed, knowing that any major changes in policy would have to be negotiated with the union.”
Within a few months of starting negotiations with GateHouse, White said, they secured protections from firing except for just cause, a grievance process, and four extra personal days per year. “We also had a say in any major changes in policies or schedules for newsroom employees,” he added. As of March, he said the union is close to reaching an agreement on pay raises.
In December 2017, the NewsGuild-CWA reached a settlement with GateHouse that improves wages and protects health benefits at 16 of their newspapers.
“By negotiating a single agreement, we have significantly enhanced workers’ power now and for the future,” said NewsGuild president Bernie Lunzer in a statement. “Rather than negotiating separately in small groups, our members are facing a common adversary together. This agreement provides a great platform for future negotiations.”
Many digital media sites, including Mic, The Onion, Vox and HuffPost have also opted to unionize.
Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East—who worked with Vox and HuffPost—told E&P, “I think it’s fair to say that Vox management was more vocally opposed at first than HuffPost, but in both shops we had to escalate pressure to reach agreement on which employees would be part of the union. It’s always a lot of work, and in some cases, we have to overcome real resistance from management.”
Not all efforts to unionize are successful though. In November 2017, one week after voting to unionize, Gothamist (and its sister sites including LAist) had the plug pulled with no notice from owner Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade.
“(He’s) an employer who shamefully punished his own profits and his own workers—merely for exercising their rights,” Hall said. “It doesn’t make sense business-wise. There was no chance to even put a proposal across the table, just a vindictive, ideologically motivated snap decision.”
Peterson said of the Gothamist shutdown: “Right-wing billionaires don’t care about bad publicity; they might even get a kick out of pretending to be tough guys. In the end, he decided he wasn’t making enough money, and he had the power to shut down the entire operation—and the wealth to take those losses.”
He added, “We continue to meet actively with the former DNA/Gothamist employees…they feel they were much stronger together than they would have been if they faced down Joe Ricketts individually.”
But there is some light at the end of the tunnel. In February, three Gothamist sites—the New York flagship site as well as LAist and DCist—were acquired by public radio stations in those cities and are expected to relaunch soon.
Besides the extreme measure of shutting down a paper or site completely, Hall discussed other ways that management can try to block the unionization process: “All too often, management will try to divide and conquer in many ways, including offering raises to individuals and bribing them (to abandon the union effort).”
Another factor working against unionizing efforts, according to Hall: “There’s a small industry of anti-union companies out there, such as the National Right to Work Foundation. Per the foundation’s own site (nrtw.org), its mission is “to eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information, and education programs.”
Hall also mentioned the disturbing trend of what he calls “vulture hedge funds” such as Digital First Media, who acquire distressed newspaper properties.
But to those papers that have been successful in forming union, Davidow said that having a union “absolutely” makes for a stronger paper. “There were some very adversarial (owners), especially at some of these hedge funds like Alden Global Capital, which controls Digital First Media. There isn’t always friction between the journalists and the people they work with on a daily basis, but when it’s question of the big corporations, some of them are just there to suck the money out. They don’t really have that commitment to journalism.”
Thinking of Unionizing Your Newsroom?
Once the union is formed, there’s an ongoing relationship between the guild and staff of the newspaper, explained Davidow. “In a new shop where people have recently organized, ideally there’s this sense of empowerment and enthusiasm. The guild structure brings experience and a lot of knowledge in negotiating contract. The first step once you’ve organized the union is to negotiate a contract. The workers bring an understanding of what their particular needs are and we try and make sure that they are in the driver’s seat as much as possible.”
Hall added, “An employer never wants to give up any power. (Unionizing and negotiating a contract) is a process of give and take. It’s informed by the employer’s policies and business condition as well as workers’ solidarity, so each bargaining is kind of a unique process. Workers must stay united to get to a positive outcome, (but) they may need to wait longer than we would like.”
The Ledger’s White recommended: “Be as specific as possible in considering what you hope to accomplish. Keep in mind that any possible raises must be balanced against the paying of union dues. Don’t have unrealistic expectations about what the union will be able to accomplish.”
Bui’s advice to any media organization contemplating following the L.A. Times example: “Absolutely do it. It would be an understatement to say that it’s difficult work. Even in smaller newsrooms, asking people to unionize is scary. It’s a big ask because people want to hold onto their jobs. But in the end, you end up so much more empowered when you know your coworkers are looking out for you and you’re looking out for them. Layoffs are always going to be a reality of the industry. There’s no way around it. But unions soften the blow and create a safety net.
“If there were to be layoffs, there’s still a legal obligation on the part of the company to negotiate a severance, which is better than the company laying us off and handing us whatever they decide. With the union, we get to at least negotiate now over what we leave with. Once we do negotiate a contract, we can negotiate for conditions, like voluntary buyouts or callback protections—which is when employees are laid off and positions open up, they have priority to be rehired.”
Bui also considered that selling the paper to a local owner “matters a lot,” such as the case with the Times, and “that wouldn’t have happened without the guild and newsroom saying, ‘We’ve had enough of what Tronc is going to do.’”