North Texas journalists want to make labor history in the Lone Star State. The A. H. Belo Corporation would prefer they didn’t.
On the morning of July 20, journalists at the Dallas Morning News announced they were forming a union, a historic move in a state that hasn’t had a union newspaper in nearly 30 years. If successful, the Morning News employees would join the NewsGuild, a fast-growing union representing more than 24,000 media workers around the country.
On Tuesday, however, Morning News Publisher Grant Moise sent a letter to organizers saying the paper’s parent company, the A. H. Belo Corporation, is refusing to voluntarily recognize the union. That means the workers will have to pursue a federally conducted election, a process that can take weeks or months. Organizers say a strong majority of the more than 100 potential members in the newsroom support the union, and they’ll file a petition for election with the National Labor Relations Board in the coming days.
The union push in Dallas is part of a recent wave of newsroom unionizations—including traditional papers like the Los Angeles Times and all-digital outlets like Vox—as journalists fight against declining working conditions in a struggling industry. In many cases, to maintain profits, corporations and hedge funds have slashed benefits and wages, bought out or laid off scores of veteran reporters, and shuttered outlets altogether. Nationally, more than 11,000 newsroom jobs vanished in just the first half of this year.
The Morning News is a rare bird: A paper still controlled by the same family that’s run it since the 19th century. But A. H. Belo is also a sizable corporation, with a long anti-union history, that pays its executives and shareholders handsomely. If the union organizers can win there, they’d establish the first foothold for organized labor in the news business in the nation’s largest right-to-work state.
Employees first began talking about a union a little over a year ago, just a few months after the paper suddenly laid off 43 employees. Staff say they got 15 minutes’ notice before veteran reporters were sent packing, with severance packages that max out at 10 weeks. “These were people here 27, 28 years, two weeks after Christmas, with kids in college and mortgages to pay,” says David Tarrant, 64, an enterprise writer who’s worked 31 years at the paper. “If you’re going to commit to putting out a great paper, and you’re going to tell us this is a family paper, then you can’t treat people that way.”
For Tarrant, who says the newsroom has lost about 100 employees since 2018 through layoffs or attrition, rash decision-making at the Morning News is a trend. In April, as the COVID-19 crisis sent advertising revenue into a tailspin, the paper slashed employees’ pay by between 3 and 17 percent, without input from workers: They’d have to work the same hours for less money. Tarrant and other organizers say if they had a union contract and a seat at the negotiating table, they might have asked for an hours cut along with the pay cut, potentially becoming eligible for partial state unemployment benefits as union reporters did at the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. Tarrant believes having a union could help “tap the brakes on what feel like very capricious decisions handed down to us at the eleventh hour.”
For most of its 135-year-history, the Dallas Morning News has been widely considered Texas’ leading paper. The newsroom has racked up nine Pulitzer Prizes. But reporters today say they don’t know whether working there is a career job anymore. “I came to the Dallas Morning News to have a long and fruitful career and do public service journalism,” says James Barragán, 29, who covers the Legislature in the paper’s Austin bureau. “I’m not sure that path remains.”
Between 2015 and 2019, A.H. Belo saw revenue drop by a third as the company struggles to replace print advertising dollars with subscriptions. The Morning News’ digital-only subscriptions have reached nearly 44,000—up more than 450 percent since 2016—but that hasn’t made up for the money lost in ads. And all that was before COVID-19 threw advertising off a cliff.
But the hard times have been considerably cushier for the company’s executives. Robert Decherd—the current majority owner, board chair, and CEO of the paper’s parent corporation A. H. Belo—ran the company from the ’80s until 2013, then returned in 2018. According to filings with the SEC, Decherd made $360,000 in salary in 2019, and between 2010 and 2013, he averaged about $2 million a year in salary and other compensation. Other executives have regularly earned around one or two million annually in recent years while Moise, the publisher, pulled down $1.3 million in 2019—a $500,000 increase from the year before. The company also touts the “above-average” dividends it pays to shareholders.
Of six reporters the Observer spoke to, most make less than $50,000 a year. They say they aren’t sure what others in the newsroom make. “There’s no transparency” about pay at the paper, says Cassandra Jaramillo, 26, who covers the Dallas Police Department.
Then there’s the question of diversity, which the union also hopes to address. According to a 2018 survey, the Morning News is 73 percent white—with 77 percent white leadership—in a city that is only 29 percent white. And the non-white staff, the organizers say, is concentrated at the lower levels. “Our young rising journalists at the DMN, there is diversity there—but we’ve seen attrition. It feels like we’re losing Black and Latino and Asian journalists quicker than we make progress,” says Jaramillo. “I don’t think we are representative of the community.”
The week before organizers publicly announced their union push, workers say Moise and other managers held meetings with staff, arguing that a union would disrupt the company’s “family” culture. Multiple employees say management told them the company had hired the union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson, though neither the law firm nor the company answered requests for confirmation.
The Observer also obtained a copy of the letter Moise sent Tuesday rebuffing the union. In it, he asks the workers to postpone any union efforts for at least a year, claiming they would be “a considerable distraction” as the company deals with the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19. Such requests for delay are so common a tactic that the Communications Workers of America lists it in their “union busting playbook.” With more time, employers can mount an anti-union campaign to undermine support, and in the meanwhile they can enact layoffs or pay cuts without the constraints of a union-bargained contract. The organizers say they can’t afford to wait.
Decherd, the majority owner and scion of the family that’s run the Morning News since its inception, also has a history of conflict with unions. Back in 1974, when he was still ascending in the company, the workers who ran the paper’s printing press were unionized and went on strike. Decherd worked “eighteen hours a day,” according to Texas Monthly, to keep the paper publishing as the company hired replacements and crushed the strike. That defeat also helped kill a fledgling effort among the reporters to form a NewsGuild chapter.
In the late ’90s—when A. H. Belo also owned the unionized Providence Journal in Rhode Island—Decherd and his company were “intractable in contract negotiations,” leading the union to file a series of unfair labor practices complaints.
During a call with investors Tuesday, just before declining to recognize the union, A. H. Belo announced that in August it would undo the COVID-19 pay cuts for journalists who made less than $60,000. The union was not mentioned on the call, but Tarrant, the enterprise writer, says he “strongly believes they wouldn’t have restored those cuts without the pressure of our public announcement to form a union.”
Decherd did not respond to requests for an interview, and Moise replied saying he “is not doing interviews regarding the Dallas News Guild.”
Organizers at the Morning News say they don’t know the extent of what their union could accomplish. Perhaps they could cut into executive and shareholder compensation to pay reporters more and retain veterans. That could set off a virtuous cycle, they speculate, leading to a better paper that drives up subscriptions and helps turn the financial ship around. Alternatively, they might be limited to softening the sharper edges of decline, making sure layoffs are carried out with reasonable notice and fair severance. Either way, they say, they want a seat at the table.
“I dont think it’s unrealistic to say there is money to treat newsroom staff somewhat better,” says Dom DiFurio, 27, who covers business at the paper. “But also, if we are going to shrink the staff further, we’d like to see it done with grace.”
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