A conciliatory News Guild settles for small victories as the industry shrinks

In late summer 2016, small newsrooms at the Lakeland Ledger and Sarasota Herald Tribune, not traditionally fertile ground for unionization in sunny Florida, successfully organized chapters of the News Guild. What results do they have to show nearly two years later?

I thought the answer might be nothing, but I was wrong. In December, the expanding GateHouse chain agreed to a 1 percent raise for their 18 Guild properties this September and another 1.7 percent in September 2019. Also, the employee-paid share of health benefits was frozen for 2018.

The negotiation and its outcome were not reported anywhere that I could see except in the Guild's own newsletter. And as victories go, this one was modest. Still, Billy Cox in Sarasota and Gary White in Lakeland, who were leaders of the organizing drives at their respective papers, told me that the small win was welcome. Under three different owners, neither had gotten a raise in more than 10 years.

This month, over several days in Tampa, union and management are hashing out what Cox characterized as the boring but necessary details of a full first-time contract.

When I caught up with Guild President Bernie Lunzer in a phone interview, he said that negotiations like the one with GateHouse are hardly the full story of the venerable union these days, but are representative. 

The Guild boasts of organizing 18 new chapters over the last three years at publications as diverse as The Guardian, The New Republic and Mic.com. Existing locals may be smaller and less potent than they once were but are at least holding on. The union represents 25,000 members (not all of them newspaper journalists) in 283 locals.

The Guild has gathered national headlines over the last few months, leading protests against Alden Global Capital's gutting of The Denver Post and dozens of other Digital First Media newsrooms. It scored this year in successful organizing drives at the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, two of the biggest metros in the country.

The LA chapter, launched in January, can claim a role in nudging the sale of the Times to billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong after newsroom rebellion focused attention on a series of corporate management blunders there. More is to come, no doubt, as two deals changing control of Tronc are completed.

Despite such gains, Lunzer conceded, the Guild cannot promise its members a finger in the dike to stem job losses at newspapers or other financially-pressed media companies. Staff reductions follow when GateHouse takes over independent papers which have included mid-sized metros, such as The Columbus Dispatch or The Providence Journal.

"We've always recognized layoffs as a management prerogative," said Lunzer, 60, who was elected national president a decade ago in a contested election after leading locals in Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

"We're not saying that they cannot do layoffs," he said, "but we would like input in how it happens," strongly preferring buyouts and good severance packages to just letting people go. 

As for strikes: "We have never taken that out of the arsenal," Lunzer said. But the last big one he could recall was in Youngstown in 2005. Retrospectively, he added, the even bigger strike against both Detroit papers in the mid-1990s resulted in disastrous losses of circulation and advertising.

And the threat of a strike doesn't carry the clout it used to when every lost day of publication meant money — lots of it — sliding off the table.

Another pivot that has developed over the last two to five years, Lunzer told me, has been for the Guild to try "to get very involved in business models and the future of the media." For example, the Guild is supporting initiatives of the industry's lobbying association, the News Media Alliance, both to oppose the crippling tariffs imposed over the last year on Canadian newsprint and to bargain as a group "for some path to getting more back from Facebook and Google."

I also spoke with Mike Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Group, the parent company of GateHouse, for his take on the December negotiation. He agreed with my notion that the Guild seems to be taking a more conciliatory approach than in years past. "I appreciated the tone of the conversation," Reed said, and he was satisfied with the outcome.

But the Guild has yet to shed some of the baggage of the last 50 years in Reed's view, so it is not as effective as it might be "in figuring out a business model for the future that will serve their members." In the hostile environment of organizing drives, Reed added, the Guild "sent letters urging advertiser boycotts" — unhelpful in preserving the revenues they want to share.

"The business has changed," Reed said. "There is a different level of accountability. We can measure everything now. The union hasn't really moved forward with that" or accepted that standards of productivity will dictate who stays and who leaves when staff reductions are necessary.

Using a business-side analogy, Reed said, "If I have a sales force of 10 people, and eight of them are out making six or eight calls a day, and there are two other guys making one or two calls a day — then those two guys have to go"

I thought the December agreement might present GateHouse with an interesting dilemma — whether or not to extend the same raises to staff at its other 100-plus non-union papers. Reed had an ingenious solution (not mentioned in either the Guild account or my initial conversation with Lunzer).

"We are doing 2 percent raises this year and next for the [rest of] rank-and-file," he said, both non-Guild employees at the 18 properties with representation and to all staff, newsroom and business, at the rest. 

"The thing I like," Reed said, "is that it is a merit pool." The most productive may get more than the 2 percent; others less.

"We are not seeking to pitch a fight with them," Reed said, summing up. Labor law dictates that management come to the table and bargain in good faith (an elastic term) once the union has been certified. Reaching an agreement proved quicker and easier than I would have thought, given GateHouse's appetite for centralizing and downsizing as it acquires properties.

At the Chicago Tribune, once a bastion of conservatism of all kinds under Colonel Robert R. McCormick, management agreed in May to recognize the union without the formality of an election after a wide majority of eligible newsroom employees had signed petition cards. In Los Angeles, awaiting negotiation on heavier-duty issues, the new Guild chapter quickly turned around a study on pay inequality by gender and ethnicity.

In reporting and writing (belatedly) on the Guild, I realize that I am something of a double agent on the subject. At three early career stops where I was represented, I got substantially better pay than I would have otherwise. Plus that carried over to my next jobs elsewhere.

But as I became an editor with direct reports and later after many years now covering the industry, I came to see job classifications and rigid seniority rules as obstructions to needed change (not that management either has been consistently fast out of the blocks in driving digital transformation). 

And let's not even get started on how grievance procedures sometimes have been subverted to job protection for slackers and incompetents who richly deserved to be sent on their way.

I am skeptical -- so is Lunzer --that the Guild can force the Alden Global Capitals of the world to sell to a better group of owners committed to the purposes of journalism.

"Can you shame a hedge fund?" he said. "We hope they will move away and let someone else take over."

But I don't think the Guild's push for fairness and a voice has become obsolete. Maybe here, as in other nooks of the industry, there is reason for cautious optimism that traditional roles and goals can adapt to the times.

"We are idealistic people ... and need to be in the conversation," Lunzer said, "rather than just agitating for more sick leave."

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