In a chilly year for the news business, union organizing is smoking hot

December 13, 2018
Category: Business & Work

Put 2018 in the rear view mirror ASAP for those trying to make money by doing journalism. Newspaper revenues are still sinking fast. Magazines are cutting, closing and changing hands. Nor are digital sites any longer up, up and away. The vagaries of publishing on Facebook and other platform giants are zapping them, too. And that’s not to mention Facebook, Google and Amazon’s cookie monster gobbling digital ad revenue.

Cause and effect or not, the NewsGuild and Writers Guild, by contrast, are having a banner year for organizing and bargaining. NewsGuild president Bernie Lunzer assures me that lots more of the same is coming in 2019.

Here is how fast the action has become:

*The Daily Hampshire Gazette and Valley Advocate, owned by Newspapers of New England, voted 40 to 29 for representation Wednesday.

*New York Magazine print and digital writers had 80 percent backing in petitioning for recognition Tuesday. Voluntary acceptance appears likely

*At Slate, journalists who are represented by the Writers Guild rather than the News Guild, authorized a strike (not the same as actually striking) Tuesday by a 52 to 1 vote.

Two differences in the new wave of organization and bargaining stand out. Management at many of the publications – the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and The Guardian (U.S.) for example – have chosen not to oppose the effort and have accepted union certification without the delay and formality of an election.

Bitter management opposition to organizing, deploying union-busting lawyers and PR firms was more the norm for much of the 20th century. It hasn’t disappeared, as detailed in a CJR story this week, but there is less of it.

Second difference: At digital sites, unionization proceeds from a standing start. The group is so new that there is no history of union representation similar to what metro newspapers have had for many decades. That means unionizing is a leap into the unknown for a New York- and Washington-centered workforce largely populated by millennials.

Guild units, as Lunzer conceded in a June interview with me, cannot block layoffs and buyouts. Those are management prerogative. Nor are big raises for all in play at most places during these tough times.

But a seat at the table, access to detailed information about salaries and profits, and the chance to highlight the importance of journalism with occasional picketing all can be attractive wins for those who do organize.

“I am a young reporter,” said Amanda Holpuch, who was on the bargaining committee as the NewsGuild negotiated a first contract with the Guardian U.S. in late 2016. “I can’t tell you how exciting and empowering it was.”

Holpuch has rotated off the Guardian bargaining committee but joined the executive committee of her local, which includes the Associated Press. She would be excited, in any case, about promoting new chapters at other New York City sites, but confesses that is proving pretty easy.

Young people in the business in Brooklyn and Manhattan hubs see each other socially all the time, “and it’s something everyone is talking about. In fact, it seems like everyone is doing it.”

Guardian management back at the U.K. parent company has traditionally been politically liberal and union-friendly, but even so, there were issues. Maternity and paternity leave benefits had not been equal and were often negotiated individually; now an equal leave policy for all is mandated.

Lunzer offered additional reasons for the organizing successes at digital sites. While layoffs have been slower to arrive in that sector than at newspapers, they have begun in earnest the last two years.

The Writers Guild of America East counts among its new chapters Huff Post, Vox Media (400 staffers) and Vice (450 video content creators). Buzz Feed, where founder Jonah Peretti started arguing against a union in 2015, is a likely target.

“There are a lot of similarities with newspapers,” Lunzer said. “People are trying to manage their futures. They have no illusions (that contraction of staff can be reversed), but they want to take control of what they can.”

“And there can be payback for really bad managers” if putting data on the table exposes big inequities.

At some fast-growing digital empires, Lunzer continued, “disparities are massive… Top reporter/writers (are) making $80,000 to $90,000. But they may be sitting next to someone earning $45,000 and sleeping on their parents couch.”

On, the newspaper side, the NewsGuild continues to have success at GateHouse papers, where cuts are often deep and always feared in newsrooms as the chain continues acquiring family-owned papers and groups. Same at Tribune Publishing, where ownership uncertainty has become a daily preoccupation in newsrooms..

Tribune, which has long owned the Newport News (Virginia) Daily Press, acquired the neighboring Virginian Pilot in September and is now merging and cutting the two newsrooms. Brock Vergakis, a military reporter at the Virginian Pilot, told me non-union top editors are losing their jobs. That’s distressing, he said, because he and others “are not adversarial with our editors.”

As the reorganization trickles down to the rank and file, he continued, it is a given, “we will lose more … But at least we are getting guarantees that we have some notice (and can bargain) the terms of buyouts and negotiate severance.”

Vergakis is on the bargaining committee for the Tidewater Guild chapter. And like the Guardian’s Holpuch, he has found it rewarding in early stages just to “review what we like and don’t like in other contracts … have the right to more information … and establish our priorities.”

Two of the year’s most notable victories were in the large and historically non-union newsrooms of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

Tribune Publishing sold the L.A. Times, along with the San Diego Union Tribune, mid-year to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who is among a number of wealthy locals in recent years who have acquired their hometown papers and websites.

Without much detailed negotiations yet, the climate is cordial, Kristina Bui, a young copy editor at the Times and member of the bargaining committee told me. Already the unit is looking to limit the use of freelancers and contractors, a reaction to the brief and loathed reign of former editor Lewis D’vorkin, who tried to establish a secret new website at a location remote from the main offices with its own staff.

“I hesitate to say what’s next,” Bui continued, “but we are very optimistic. “We’re seeing a lot of hiring and new energy in the newsroom. Twenty people start next Monday. So that’s encouraging. But there are still going to be tensions with those who have worked here a long time.”

The story has been less positive at the Chicago Tribune. The union was certified in July and will start bargaining soon. But after newsroom cuts in the spring, a second round of buyouts was offered in the fall and those who took the option are leaving this month.

Mary Wisniewski, a reporter covering transportation and an early organizer, notes progress nonetheless.

“When we first started, we encountered a lot of skepticism,” she said, “but as people started examining what was happening with executive compensation, the lack of raises and rising medical costs,” a large majority ultimately signed cards (see below).

“People saw something they are proud of and love — the paper — being threatened,” said she. “They don’t want it taken over by a bunch of pirates.”

I don’t think it is a given that every journalist knows how one of the guild chapters gets formed – or some of the pros and cons to consider. Here is the process:

*Preliminary work on an organizing drive can be initiated either by the union or interested journalists at a given publication.

*By signing cards or a petition, eligible journalists (i.e excluding managers) indicate they want union representation.

*Once enough names are in hand, organizers ask management to voluntarily recognize the chapter. If that doesn’t happen, the National Labor Relations Board will conduct an election.

*After a chapter is certified by either method, management is required by federal law to “bargain in good faith.” That is an elastic standard, but corporate managers do not have the option of refusing to come to the table.

*Also, a certified chapter will typically have a steward to represent members who are threatened with discipline or firing.

The temper of the times seems to be surprisingly pleasant overall. My guess is that what Lunzer calls “democratizing the newsroom” may fit a management agenda of culture change that involves everyone in the difficult work of digital transformation. Resistance and ill will over buyouts and layoffs have consistently torpedoed top-down mandates.

Or the union advocates may simply have the votes.

If the going gets difficult, unions have some tougher tools: brief walkouts, byline strikes, picketing and the threat of a full-blown strike. That group of tactics came into play at digital site Law360, where management and the unit reached a tentative agreement earlier this month.

A downside to voting for representation is that once the union is certified, in many jurisdictions, you must pay dues, whether you voted in favor or not. Guild spokesperson Sally Davidow told me that the current standard is 1.348 percent of base pay. For someone making a $40,000 a year, that works out to about $540.

I won’t hazard a guess whether unionized newsrooms, ever more digital, will become all but universal over the next five years. But the number of feisty journalists multiples. A wise man once said, “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” That and the $500-plus a year in dues.

Clarification: This story was modified from its original version to clarify in which jurisdictions dues are mandated, and to provide specifics about Amanda Holpuch’s union affiliations.

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