By:
July 20, 2021

Workers at The Buffalo News have been represented by a union for nearly a century and are very familiar with the collective bargaining process. But the current round of contract negotiations is unlike any in recent memory, union leaders say.

The Buffalo Newspaper Guild, which represents approximately 150 workers at the paper, has been bargaining its first contract with owner Lee Enterprises since February. During that time, the company has put forth proposals that the union says would devastate the paper, its workers and its readers.

Three proposals in particular have caused concern. The first advocates outsourcing the jobs of the paper’s copy editors, page designers, customer service representatives and accounting department. In all, more than two dozen people would be affected. The second proposal allows the company to lay off workers without justification. The third aims to freeze union members’ pension plans even though the current plan is overfunded.

The company’s stance during negotiations has driven the union to mount a byline strike, withdrawing their names from stories and photos printed in the paper. The union is also circulating a petition that has garnered more than 1,400 signatures, and it has solicited the support of more than 20 local elected officials.

Lee Enterprises spokesperson Charles Arms declined to comment for this story.

Bitter contract negotiations aren’t unusual. Unions at Condé Nast publications The New Yorker, Pitchfork and Ars Technica made headlines in March when they voted to authorize a strike over how long negotiations were taking. Similarly, the Ziff Davis Creators Guild — which represents journalists at AskMen, Geek, Mashable and PCMag — held a strike authorization vote in May after more than two years of negotiations.

But what makes the situation at The Buffalo News different is that the conflict follows a period of relative “labor peace” during which local management and workers had an understanding that they needed to cooperate for the good of the paper.

Before Lee acquired The Buffalo News in January 2020, it was owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. During that time, local management had considerable latitude in how they ran the paper. Buffett later built up the newspaper chain BH Media Group, which included titles like the Omaha World-Herald, the Tulsa World and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but those papers didn’t have as much autonomy as the News.

During contract negotiations prior to 2020, the union bargained directly with local management, not corporate representatives from Berkshire Hathaway. Everyone in the room had a vested interest in bargaining in good faith and doing what was best for the paper, said Henry Davis, a former News reporter who was president of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild from 2010 to 2016.

“You are bargaining with people you have a daily relationship with, that you might have coffee with, or you might go to lunch with,” Davis said. “Over many years, if all of you are making an effort to maintain those kinds of relationships and improve them, it has an effect when you go into bargaining. There’s a level of trust that you can build.”

Local managers were familiar with the Buffalo community and the needs of the paper, Davis said. Though there were occasional “deep disagreements” that led to “aggressive mobilization campaigns,” the paper’s management was willing to be transparent with the union and work with them.

During that time, Berkshire Hathaway rarely got involved. Current Buffalo Newspaper Guild president Sandra Tan said she doesn’t remember a single bargaining session during which a representative from the company was present in the room. It was just local management. Depending on the issue at hand, The Buffalo News occasionally consulted the company, but local management largely retained the ability to make their own deals.

Now, the union is bargaining with representatives from Lee, which is headquartered in Davenport, Iowa. Astrid Garcia, vice president of human resources and legal at Lee Enterprises, has sat in on every bargaining session since February, Tan said.

Another factor that makes the Buffalo Newspaper Guild unique is its age. Unlike other unions today that are negotiating their first contracts, the union at The Buffalo News has been around since the 1930s. Through decades of negotiations, it has secured strong contract protections for its workers.

The proposals from Lee would strip away those protections.

“I would think that Lee would recognize that if you are trying to gain concessions from a union like ours, that you don’t expect that you are going to strip away everything that we’ve spent decades fighting for overnight,” Tan said. “I don’t think they are understanding at all of the realities of getting a guild membership like ours to support these kinds of really destructive proposals.”

Lee so far has put forth more than two dozen proposals. That’s an unusually large amount, Tan said, especially given the severity of the proposals. In the past, if local management put forth two dozen proposals, they would be relatively minor. The proposal to freeze pensions, for example, would have been a big enough item to discuss on its own.

Those proposals would also negatively affect the community, according to the union. Outsourcing the paper’s design work to out-of-state hubs would move deadlines up and give the paper less flexibility in covering breaking events. Readers may notice more errors in the paper or have a less satisfactory customer service experience after copy editing and customer service jobs are outsourced.

“Our community deserves a paper that is produced by local people,” Tan said. “This will have concrete consequences for each and every person who reads our paper and has come to rely on it as a source of information.”

The union’s current contract is set to expire at the end of this month. In the past, the union has occasionally had to negotiate with management past the contract expiration date, but there was always an understanding that both sides were committed to a solution, Tan said. Now, there’s a “sense of foreboding” and a pressure to ratify a new contract before the current one expires.

The seriousness of the proposals has driven the guild to launch an indefinite byline strike. They have also sought out the support of local elected officials, something they have never done before.

“In the past, we would never have reached out to elected leaders and asked them to support us because many of us in the newsroom consider that a conflict of interest because these are people we cover,” Tan said. “But given the severity of the proposals that they put forward this time around, the guild leadership team decided if there was ever a time when we needed public community leaders’ support, it was now.”

The ongoing conflict leaves the future of the union’s relationship with Lee uncertain, but Phil Fairbanks, a former president of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild and current member of the union’s executive committee, said he is optimistic.

“My hope is once we finish with this first initial round of negotiations, that they’ll realize we’re not the enemy, that we can be a partner,” Fairbanks said. “We’ve had a lot of instances where we’ve been involved in confrontational bargaining under Buffett, but in the end, we are always able to reach a resolution that is beneficial to both sides.”

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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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