By:
July 20, 2021

Workers at news outlets have been unionizing at a rapid pace in recent years, but that’s just half the battle. Now, dozens of new unions are in the midst of contract negotiations and, for some, that process has proven to be even more difficult.

The NewsGuild, the largest union representing journalists, told members earlier this month that roughly 90 of its new units are currently negotiating for a first contract, also known as a collective bargaining agreement. Though not all of those units are based in newsrooms, it’s a clear sign that the unionization movement within journalism is entering a second stage.

That second stage can be contentious. In recent months, workers from publications ranging from The New Yorker to Fortune have made headlines after staging walkouts and protests over how long their negotiations were taking. On Twitter, newsroom unions regularly post bargaining updates, taking their outlets’ management to task when they are unhappy with the proposals put forth.

Those headlines and Twitter posts will likely increase in frequency as more newsrooms unionize and enter the negotiations process. A Poynter analysis of 47 units that have negotiated first contracts found that on average, it takes just over a year and a half, or 18 months and 21 days, to secure a first contract. The median is 16 months.

(That data is taken from a recently compiled Poynter list of over 200 media union drives from January 2012 to June 2021. Browse the list and learn more about the unionization movement in journalism here.)

Of the 47 units, 13 were able to get a contract within a year of their unionization date, while 13 had to wait at least two years. Workers at the Billings (Montana) Gazette secured their contract in the shortest amount of time — just four months after unionizing. Meanwhile, workers at The (Springfield, Illinois) State Journal-Register were in negotiations for nearly six years.

Union leaders say that a year to a year and a half is reasonable for first contract negotiations. It’s a delicate process. Workers have many motivations for unionizing — low pay, few benefits, little control over their editorial work, lack of diversity in the workplace — and the first contract is their chance to address those issues.

“We want to make sure that the contract that the workers ultimately settle on is something that they’re going to be happy with for a period of time, and so there’s no rush to get it done if what they want is not there yet,” said Mary Cavallaro, chief broadcast officer of the SAG-AFTRA news and broadcast department. “There’s definitely no interest in rushing to a deal for the sake of having a contract.”

Naturally, employers have an incentive to push back. The first contract sets a standard at the company that later contracts will be built upon. Those contracts can also set industry norms, said University of Toronto associate professor Nicole Cohen. Workers at one outlet may point to a salary floor at another as an example of an industry standard.

“The stakes are really high,” Cohen said. “Just as journalists are committed to one another in the industry to kind of do their best and win really good contracts, I think companies are also committed to each other to fight them as hard as they can.”

NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss also pointed out that news outlets will generally send lawyers in to handle their contract negotiations. Meanwhile, the NewsGuild brings the journalists themselves to the bargaining table to advocate for the proposals they want. Those company lawyers have a financial incentive to prolong negotiations since “the longer they take, the more money they get paid,” he said.

When contract negotiations start broaching the two-year mark, unions get antsy. One of the most high-profile clashes in recent years took place at The New Yorker. Workers there unionized in July 2018 and have since held various work stoppages and demonstrations to protest Condé Nast’s proposals. In March, union members voted to authorize a strike if negotiations continued to stall. The two sides reached an agreement in June, but not before the union had revamped its website to include instructions for a possible strike.

Members of the Ziff Davis Creators Guild — which represents staff at AskMen, Geek, Mashable and PCMag — also mounted a one-day work stoppage and voted to authorize a strike earlier this year. They reached an agreement on their first contract in June, two and a half years after they unionized.

Both The New Yorker union and the Ziff Davis Creators Guild were voluntarily recognized, allowing them to avoid the drawn-out and expensive process of certification through a National Labor Relations Board election.

Though voluntary recognition may seem like a pro-union move, there does not appear to be a significant correlation between how a union is formed and the length of the contract negotiation process. Of the 13 unions that negotiated first contracts for at least two years, six were voluntarily recognized, and seven went to an NLRB election.

“We can’t mistake voluntary recognition for an embrace of the union … because what ends up happening is a lot of the actual pushback and fights happen at the bargaining table,” Cohen said.

“The image consciousness of these companies is also a key part of this whole story,” she added. “A media company can look really good when it voluntarily recognizes the union quickly.”

To keep up with all the ongoing first contract negotiations, the NewsGuild has expanded hiring and coordinated additional training for its members.

“(We’re) rapidly building capacity to expand and expand and expand so that we can give working journalists more power and more support in these fights,” Schleuss said in April.

That rapid expansion recently became a source of tension within the NewsGuild of New York, the union’s largest local. Like the rest of the union, the NewsGuild of New York has been organizing newsrooms at a rapid pace, and many of those new units are now in the midst of contract negotiations. Because members do not pay dues until they have secured their first contract, already established units must fund newer units’ activities.

The conflict came to a head last month when 100 New York Times staffers circulated an email objecting to a proposal to permanently raise dues from roughly 1.39% to 1.75% and eliminate a cap on dues on income over $140,000.

Following the outcry, the NewsGuild of New York revised its proposal to temporarily increase the dues for three years. Members are currently voting on the proposal.

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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