The NewsGuild is trying to organize a chapter at The Dallas Morning News

Besides traditional concerns like pay and staffing, organizers criticized management for what they say was tardy PPE and COVID-19 testing

July 20, 2020

After organizing at such major metros as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, the NewsGuild now has set its sights on forming a newsroom union at The Dallas Morning News.

An organizing committee announced the effort at Texas’s largest paper Monday morning. It said that a majority of potential members had signed cards requesting union recognition — and hoped the company would agree voluntarily.

A news release said this would be the first Guild chapter in Texas, a right-to-work state (and that the term “right-to-work” originated in a 1941 Dallas Morning News editorial).

Dominick DiFurio, a business reporter and member of the organizing committee, told me the union effort began after a round of 43 layoffs in January 2019, preceded by many voluntary resignations.

“It was demoralizing,” DiFurio said. “There was a flood of departures … and not just of people going to national publications like The New York Times. They were staying in town taking other jobs, many in marketing or PR. … We would like for The Dallas Morning News to be a place where people want to end up.”

Besides traditional concerns like pay and staffing, the organizers criticized management for what they said was tardy action in providing personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing to reporters covering the pandemic and protests.

In a brief statement, publisher Grant Moise said “We are taking the letter under advisement. It’s our privilege to provide a world-class news report to the people of North Texas and we will continue to do so.”

DiFurio said the organizing group was told two weeks ago that the company has retained a labor law firm. From that, he inferred that owner A.H. Belo would most likely wage a campaign to force an election under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board and try to defeat the effort.

The Guild has been adding new chapters quickly in recent years — 55 since 2016, according to national spokesperson Sally Davidow. A little over half of those are at newspapers, but the newly unionized shops also include magazines like The New Yorker and digital-only sites like BuzzFeed News.

At some publications, like the Chicago Tribune, management agreed that the union would certainly win if the question were put to a vote, so management voluntarily recognized the new chapter.

In other instances — like recent drives at the Orlando Sentinel and The Roanoke Times — an election was required. (Davidow said that the Guild has not lost an organizing vote in the last five years.)

DiFurio said that the newsroom, numbering well over 200 as recently as 2018, is now at about 160 including managers. It remains to be seen in a contract negotiation, he said, how many could be represented and how many supervisors would instead be classified as exempt.

The Morning News is unusual in being the sole paper owned by A.H. Belo, a publicly traded company. Voting control rests with family shareholders — the same arrangement that the Sulzbergers have at The New York Times Co. or the McClatchys did until recently relinquishing their stake in the company that bears their name to seek bankruptcy protection.

Most of the family voting stock is owned by Robert Decherd, who returned to the company as chairman, president and CEO in 2018 after a five-year absence.

At one time, Belo owned three other papers and had a large local broadcasting division. That division has been spun off and now Belo consists of just the Morning News and the sister Spanish-language Al Día (also part of the unionization drive), along with several associated advertising and marketing businesses.

The Morning News has made progress building paid digital subscriptions — 35,000 at the end of 2019 according to Belo’s most recent financial report. However, like most of the industry, it has experienced sharp print advertising losses — in the range of 20% — during the last several years, and now made worse by the pandemic and recession.

Mike Wilson, a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, is the Morning News editor.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.