The Chicago Tribune Is Finally Union as the Media Organizing Wave Intensifies

Stephen Franklin

High publicity victories at nameplate publications like the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times have helped replenish the NewsGuild’s ranks. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On May 7, glass­es clanked and cheers echoed across a down­town Chica­go bar as jour­nal­ists open­ly cel­e­brat­ed what would have been a whis­pered fan­ta­sy just a few short months ago. The Chica­go Tri­bune, the moth­er of all major anti-union news­pa­pers — both in its edi­to­r­i­al phi­los­o­phy and news­room pol­i­cy — had just bowed to its employ­ees’ desire to form a union.

Mary Wis­niews­ki, sidling up to a table, beamed broad­ly as she recalled receiv­ing a colleague’s phone call a day before inform­ing her that the com­pa­ny had relent­ed and agreed to rec­og­nize the NewsGuild.

I was so hap­py. I did a lit­tle dance and took a shot of vod­ka. Pol­ish, of course,” chuck­led Wis­niews­ki, a vet­er­an jour­nal­ist and mem­ber of the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee that had worked for months in vir­tu­al sub­ma­rine silence while gath­er­ing support.

In April, union orga­niz­ers won a stun­ning 85 per­cent sup­port from poten­tial bar­gain­ing unit mem­bers. While con­tract talks have yet to begin, union offi­cials say they will like­ly to focus on the issues raised in the orga­niz­ing dri­ve: job secu­ri­ty, con­trol­ling health care pre­mi­ums, pay equi­ty and build­ing a diverse news­room that reflects the community.

The jour­nal­ists’ jubi­la­tion is shared by the two unions that in recent years have been sign­ing up mem­bers in the print and dig­i­tal media indus­try in droves — the News­Guild and the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca East (WGAE). I com­pare it to what it must have been like in the ear­ly 30s’ when the Guild was found­ed,” said News­Guild Pres­i­dent Bernie Lunzer.

High pub­lic­i­ty vic­to­ries at name­plate pub­li­ca­tions like the Chica­go Tri­bune and the Los Ange­les Timesanoth­er long-time rock of anti-union fer­vor — have helped replen­ish the NewsGuild’s ranks, which have fall­en to about 25,000, down from a high water mark of 34,000 in the late 1980s.

Low­ell Peter­son, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the WGAE and an attor­ney with near­ly 30 years of union expe­ri­ence, mar­vels at the pal­pa­ble sense of move­ment” among work­ers. Over 1,200 dig­i­tal media work­ers have joined the near­ly 5,000-member WGAE over the last three years, a stark rise of union­iza­tion for the industry.

So, what accounts for this rapid growth in union­iza­tion? Have news unions mint­ed a new orga­niz­ing elixir?

Not exact­ly. Rather, media work­ers have shown a new­found will­ing­ness to fight for their rights on the job, and as more and more news­rooms have suc­cess­ful­ly orga­nized, oth­er jour­nal­ists have been moti­vat­ed to union­ize their own work­places. At the Chica­go Tri­bune, for exam­ple, jour­nal­ists say the orga­niz­ing vic­to­ry a few months ear­li­er at the Los Ange­les Times helped ignite their own effort.

There are also mod­ern-day real­i­ties about orga­niz­ing these work­ers. For exam­ple, much of what dri­ves the orga­niz­ing among dig­i­tal media work­ers is how con­nect­ed media work­ers are and how reg­u­lar­ly they com­mu­ni­cate, accord­ing to Megan McRobert, an orga­niz­er for the WGAE. I’ll get a call from some­body who will say my friend is with Fusion and so can we talk.’” A for­mer orga­niz­er for the SEIU, she recalls in the past wait­ing for hours in hos­pi­tal cafe­te­rias to meet poten­tial members.

Not so long ago it was also thought that dig­i­tal jour­nal­ists were loath to join unions because their youth makes them uncon­cerned about long-term careers, or because they flit from one site to anoth­er, or because unions are just not in their cul­tur­al DNA.

Kim Bell­ware, a Chica­go based jour­nal­ist who served on the WGAE nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee at Huff­Post — anoth­er recent­ly union­ized news­room — dis­agrees. Dig­i­tal jour­nal­ists do care about job sta­bil­i­ty, she explained. If they had job sta­bil­i­ty, you wouldn’t see so much mov­ing. They move because they are unhap­py, because they are not well paid, because they are not being treat­ed well or not being developed.”

Four months after the union signed a con­tract with Huff­Post, how­ev­er, Bell­ware lost her job as part of a wave of lay­offs. But that didn’t change her feel­ings about the union. The cut­back was long expect­ed, she said, and the union sig­nif­i­cant­ly helped smooth out her lay­off. It was more gen­er­ous than any­thing I had ever heard of except an exec­u­tive get­ting a gold­en para­chute. I’ve been laid off before and nev­er received salary and ben­e­fits,” said Bell­ware, who still belongs to the union.

Anoth­er dri­ving force for the rise in media union­iz­ing has been the dis­parate direc­tions tak­en by print and dig­i­tal news media outlets.

While print jour­nal­ism is van­ish­ing like so many pud­dles in the sun, dig­i­tal news oper­a­tions are plugged in and explod­ing. Over­all employ­ment in the news­pa­per indus­try has plum­met­ed from 455,000 jobs in 1990 to 183,000 in 2016, fed­er­al fig­ures show. Over the same time peri­od, inter­net pub­lish­ing and broad­cast­ing jobs have leaped from 28,800 to 197,800.

These declines have wrought dire con­se­quences for print reporters.

News­room staffing is down 40 per­cent over the last decade among news­pa­pers, and as much as 60 to 70 per­cent among news­pa­pers owned and man­aged by hedge funds and pri­vate equi­ty funds, accord­ing to Pene­lope Muse Aber­nathy, the Knight Chair of Jour­nal­ism and Dig­i­tal Media Eco­nom­ics in the School of Media and Jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na. She recent­ly led a major study of Amer­i­can newsrooms.

Five of the 10 largest news­pa­per chains are owned by invest­ment enti­ties such as hedge funds and pri­vate equi­ty funds, which has changed the land­scape for jour­nal­ists. These new own­ers rely on aggres­sive cost-cut­ting” and miser­ly” wage increas­es, she added.

Dean Olsen can tell you what it’s like to work in a news­room full of ghosts. He’s a health­care reporter at the State Jour­nal Reg­is­ter in Spring­field, Ill., a news­pa­per with roots going back to 1831. Since the NewGuild orga­nized his paper in 2012, the news­room has shrunk from 33 to 17, leav­ing only three to four (news) reporters,” he said.

There has not been a pay raise in 11 years, though the News­Guild recent­ly nego­ti­at­ed for a one per­cent raise in Sep­tem­ber and anoth­er 1.7 per­cent increase next year for the 16 Gate­House news­pa­pers it rep­re­sents. In 2016, Olsen also helped orga­nize two oth­er Gate­house papers in Flori­da, the Lake­land Ledger and the Sara­so­ta Her­ald-Tri­bune, but they have yet to sign a con­tract with the com­pa­ny. Gate­House Media pub­lish­es 144 dai­ly news­pa­pers and is part of New Media Invest­ment Group.

In recent years, amid hard times at the Chica­go Tri­bune, the News­Guild had made sev­er­al pass­es at orga­niz­ing but gained lit­tle trac­tion. I made some inquiries. I knocked on a few doors but didn’t get much of a response. There was a lot of not now, it won’t hap­pen here, I’m not going to get involved in any­thing like this,’” recalled Dave Roed­er, a for­mer Chica­go Sun-Times busi­ness reporter and now a part-time orga­niz­er with the NewsGuild.

But the clouds lift­ed, so to speak, when the Los Ange­les Times orga­niz­ing effort got under­way. The Chica­go Tri­bunes cam­paign built upon long-term gripes about cor­po­rate spend­ing, the lack of rais­es, lay­offs and the fail­ure to fill emp­ty jobs at the paper. They had a sense of urgency because of the ongo­ing changes at TRONC (the Tribune’s par­ent com­pa­ny). Peo­ple were afraid. They felt that they need­ed some sta­tus quo pro­tec­tions as quick­ly as they could get them,” he said

At a recent com­mu­ni­ty meet­ing set up by City Bureau, a fast-grow­ing and inno­v­a­tive grass­roots jour­nal­ism orga­ni­za­tion in Chica­go, sev­er­al Chica­go Tri­bune work­ers explained what happened.

Once they got start­ed, secre­cy was key, they said, so the com­pa­ny would not be able to keep track of the orga­niz­ing dri­ve. They cat­e­go­rized work­ers by their like­li­hood to embrace a union. But there were very few who would not talk to us.” In role-play­ing ses­sions with the News­Guild, orga­niz­ers learned how to pitch the union to col­leagues. They set up a Twit­ter page, dis­cussed media strat­e­gy and ulti­mate­ly reached out to NPR reporter David Folken­flik, think­ing that nation­al cov­er­age would help the cam­paign gain steam.

And they were in a hur­ry, fear­ing loom­ing layoffs.

One of the orga­niz­ing committee’s mem­bers was vet­er­an pho­tog­ra­ph­er Abel Uribe, who was skep­ti­cal of the union at first. I felt I need­ed more infor­ma­tion, so I went back home and start­ed research­ing unions,” he recalled. He saw that unions reached set­tle­ments that improved con­di­tions and pro­tect­ed workers.

Accord­ing to Roed­er of the News­Guild, the lack of news­room diver­si­ty and advance­ment for minori­ties was a con­cern raised by orga­niz­ers, and it prompt­ed work­ers to make sure their effort was diverse.

It was an issue that has deeply touched Uribe, who has often shared his feel­ings that he hasn’t been treat­ed the same as oth­ers in the news­room. I fig­ured as a per­son of col­or that I would be one of the first to get let go in a lay­off,” he explained. 

As the orga­niz­ing sped up and he learned more about unions, Uribe’s view of the effort changed, lead­ing him to join the orga­niz­ing committee.

We were not just fight­ing for bet­ter pay,” he said, but for the future of jour­nal­ism in Chicago.”

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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