Legal Update

What’s behind the union organizing blitzkrieg at both high-profile and off-the-radar properties

Posted
Michael Rybicki
Michael Rybicki

Recently there has been a flurry of successful union organizing activity, including at staunchly non-union newspapers. In January, the NewsGuild won a high-profile election in the newsroom at The Los Angeles Times by the lopsided vote of 248-44. Just last month, Tronc announced it would voluntarily recognize the NewsGuild in three bargaining units representing the Chicago Tribune, its suburban and Hoy publications, and its design and production studio. This will be the first newsroom union in the Chicago Tribune’s 171-year history.

The NewsGuild also won elections at Lee Enterprises’ papers in Missoula, Montana; Casper, Wyoming (the first in the state); and Carbondale, Illinois, where the vote in favor of union representation was unanimous. In fact, just under 20 representation petitions—most but not all of which have been in newsrooms—have been filed at newspapers since 2016, when the NewsGuild organized two GateHouse Media newsrooms in Florida.

It is fair to say that the newspaper industry has not seen this level of union organizing activity in decades, and it is particularly striking that organizing efforts have succeeded at media companies historically not receptive to unions, particularly in their newsrooms.

Additionally, as we have previously written, during the same period there has been a union organizing blitzkrieg in digital newsrooms, separately conducted by the NewsGuild and the Writers Guild of America-East, netting the unions 700-plus digital news staffers.

Tellingly, the results of this union organizing activity makes it clear that the confident conceit among some that today’s tech-savvy millennial content producers are impervious to unionization is simply wrong.

While union organizing efforts frequently are precipitated by property-specific issues, a number of common threads have emerged (although not in every instance):

Employee frustration over extended periods with few, if any, pay increases coupled with an escalating cost for benefits;

Employee anger over “lavish” executive pay and/or “excessive” returns for investors;

A belief that employers are no longer committed to “quality” journalism, frequently coupled with the belief that the only thing that matters to owners/investors is short-term profits, regardless of whether this is “gutting” the news organization;

Employee anxiety over constant reductions in staff; and

Employee concerns with respect to a change in ownership.

Perhaps none of this is surprising given the state of the industry, but there is more. In conjunction with recent organizing efforts, there have been allegations of the types of serious misconduct giving rise to the #MeToo movement—frequently accompanied by high-level/high-profile departures—and assertions of pay disparity, including that women and people of color make less than white males. This is grist for the organizing mill.

Whether it is fair nor not, in this “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” moment, no newspaper is invulnerable to union organizing. While it is impossible to ignore the economic realities confronting the industry, news organizations must rethink and redouble their efforts to connect with employees and to be recognized as responsible employers in difficult times.

Michael Rybicki is a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, practicing labor and employment law with a focus on traditional labor matters. He has extensive experience in labor contract negotiation and administration, the acquisition, divestiture, and restructuring of unionized properties, and practice before the National Labor Relations Board. He can be reached at mrybicki@seyfarth.com