By:
April 28, 2021

The journalism industry has been marked by volatility during the pandemic as dozens of papers shed jobs and newsrooms closed their doors.

The staff of three unionized newsrooms, however, have found a little more certainty in their jobs over the past year. Last spring, workers at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., The Daily Progress in Virginia and the Omaha (Nebraska) World-Herald ratified their first union contracts in rapid succession. A year later, union leaders say their contracts have offered them more security and facilitated communication with management.

“I don’t have as much fear about waking up with a job and ending the day without one,” said Katherine Knott, unit chair of the Blue Ridge NewsGuild, which represents employees of The Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia. “There’s a little less existential dread.”

The contracts came with clear tangible perks — raises of at least 2% and established salary floors. But the decreased fear of losing a job was one major, if less outwardly obvious, benefit. Prior to ratifying their contracts, employees at the three newsrooms had worked at will, and their companies had the power to terminate them without advance notice.

“Nothing was guaranteed. We could be laid off tomorrow with no severance, no health insurance, no nothing,” said Center for Public Integrity Union chair Joe Yerardi, who saw the union ratify its contract March 6, 2020. “You could be fired for any reason or for no reason at all. You had no protection, nothing guaranteed.”

Kate Myers is the interim chief operating officer for the Center for Public Integrity, which is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the influence of money and inequality on democracy. She confirmed that employees had worked at will prior to the union contract and said there hasn’t been a round of mass layoffs at the organization since 2010. The last individual layoff she could confirm took place in 2015.

“CPI is proud to have a strong partner in our union, sharing a commitment to the impact of CPI and to the success of all our people,” Myers wrote in an emailed statement.

That uncertainty about employment could make it hard to focus on working and doing good journalism, said Omaha World-Herald Guild vice chair Hunter Paniagua, whose union ratified their contract May 1. Now, all three newsrooms have stronger layoff protections, like requirements for prior notice and higher severance pay. The World-Herald’s contract also included a no-layoff provision for six months.

Those protections haven’t completely stopped layoffs, however. The Progress and The World-Herald, both newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises, have had at least three and six layoffs, respectively, in the past year. Some of those layoffs were tied to Lee’s company-wide decision to centralize copy desk and design work to a hub in the Midwest.

Leadership at The Progress and the World-Herald did not respond to a request for comment.

Paniagua said some of the processes outlined in the union contract helped mitigate layoffs at the World-Herald. For example, people can volunteer to take the place of others. He said there were a couple of instances where a person found a job elsewhere and voluntarily left, eliminating the need for a layoff.

“I don’t know that having a union is ever going to completely stop layoffs,” Paniagua said. “That being said, having a contract with a set process for layoffs and set rules for severance payments and things like that can act as a deterrent.”

Another benefit of the contract is increased transparency, CPI Union shop steward Pratheek Rebala said. The union is now able to attend board meetings, giving union members greater insight into the organization’s financial state. Both union and non-union members benefit from that transparency, Rebala said.

Managers at The Progress have also become more open about sharing information, unit secretary Allison Wrabel said. For example, the union got a “slight heads up” about changes to the building that houses the paper, which she attributed to growing trust developed from working together via the Labor-Management Committee.

The union also gives The Progress employees more security to be upfront with readers about changes in the newsroom and how they might affect the paper, Knott said. For example, managers would not tell readers about layoffs at the paper, but the union will.

“That transparency and what’s happening at The Progress is only being provided by the union right now,” Knott said. “We were doing a little before on Twitter, but there was always a little (feeling of) like, ‘send tweet and wait.’”

Union leaders at CPI said having a union makes it easier to communicate the staff’s needs with management. Employees with questions or concerns they wish to raise anonymously can ask the union to bring them up with management instead, Rebala said.

CPI Union shop steward Sarah Kleiner said that before unionizing, she was worried the process would strain the relationship between management and staff. Those fears never materialized.

“Having a collective voice has made it easier for us to work with management,” Kleiner said. “I think that knowing we’re all on the same page and that we can be called to action has really helped union members feel like they have a voice.”

Union leaders at all three papers said there have been no downsides to the new contracts.

At The Progress, that doesn’t necessarily mean things are all “roses and sunshine,” Knott said. But workers do have a little more control over their jobs than before.

“We were really clear-eyed about what a union wouldn’t be able to do. We did not go in promising the moon,” Knott said. “It was like, right now we have absolutely no control over what’s going to happen. We have no heads-up, we have no say. So why don’t we give ourselves a voice at something?”

More on media unionization:

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Angela Fu is a freelance reporter based in Birmingham, Ala. and a contributor to Poynter.org. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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