Aren’t Reporters Supposed to Challenge Authority?
The historic newspaper strike in Fort Worth raises questions about the future of Texas journalism and puts union members through 24 days of hell.
A version of this story ran in the March / April 2023 issue.
Strike Diary Day 15:
The giant rat was drooping.
“I think it’s the generator,” said Emily Brindley, the bargaining chair for our union, the Fort Worth NewsGuild. She was sitting beside the rat in the back of a pickup truck. Jess Hardin, a bargaining team member, yanked on the handle of the stalling generator, eliciting a strangling noise from the motor. “Yeah, it’s the generator,” Hardin agreed.
I tried not to look at the inflatable rat whose features became a grimace as he deflated. We needed to be positive here. The rat, Scabby, frequently appears at union activities. Today, he joined the Fort Worth NewsGuild in our strike—the first open-ended newsroom strike in Texas history. “Okay, that’s fine, let’s just chant,” I said with an enthusiasm I did not feel. After more than two weeks of walking a picket line, I was tired of chanting.
As we stood on the sidewalk in a Fort Worth neighborhood, mist-like rain dampened the mood. We were cold, a little frazzled, and anxious. Fifteen days into our strike, we stood outside our boss’ house. Many of us had previously visited for newsroom happy hours. We had been picketing, marching, and chanting outside the Fort Worth Star-Telegram office, but this felt different. We were desperate to be heard.
The day before, we had talked to our editors through coordinated phone calls. “McClatchy has shown no interest in getting you your newsroom back,” we said. “What are you going to do about it?”
Some conversations went well. Editors did not seem to know the details of our negotiations with the company that owns our newspaper and 29 others. But other talks did not. We remained on our own.
For two years, the Fort Worth NewsGuild had been bargaining with McClatchy—which has been owned since 2019 by the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management—at a virtual bargaining table. Once a month, our team met with a Jones Day lawyer, upper management, and one local editor to negotiate our first contract. We’d hit a wall. McClatchy hadn’t shifted positions for months.
If we wanted the Star-Telegram newsroom to have liveable wages, proper benefits, and a chance at a better future, we had to act. We had to strike.
Fort Worth NewsGuild strike begins, November 28
Six hours in, McClatchy revoked our healthcare benefits for the month of December.
This was not illegal, but it was unexpected. During a strike, companies can choose to declare their employees “unemployed” and revoke benefits. But even in some recent high-profile strikes—like the John Deere UAW strike in 2021—employers had opted not to cross that line.
Silas Allen, a Star-Telegram education reporter who was going to occupational therapy as part of his stroke recovery plan, texted me. We needed to get him on temporary insurance immediately. For many, being taken off health insurance while relearning motor functions would be a deal breaker, but Silas was undeterred.
We ramped up fundraising. Donations flooded in. By revoking our healthcare, McClatchy did much of our campaigning for us: The company’s decision spoke for itself.
I worried we wouldn’t hit our goal of $15,000, but donations poured in. Each day, we picketed. Others joined us. Former Star-Telegrammers, long-time subscribers, labor activists, and random people compelled by the cause chanted alongside us up and down West 7th and Crockett Row. Individuals and groups bought lunches. One day, a Teamster member drove up from Houston. A local coffee shop, Avoca, let us use its space as our base.
While we were buoyed by the groundswell of support, the vibe at the bargaining table was discouraging.
Here’s how bargaining is supposed to work: One side wants something. The other side wants something else. Each side makes concessions, and eventually they meet somewhere in the middle. Here’s how bargaining with McClatchy works: We painstakingly research contract proposals. The company scolds us for asking for too much. They refuse to make significant moves. Repeat for two years. During the first week, the company refused our requests to bargain.
Prescheduled bargaining session happens
Over Zoom, strikers and labor activists delivered impassioned speeches. But McClatchy stuck to its playbook. The company’s lawyer insisted we had asked for more than any other of its unions, though we had members of those unions available to dispute that.
I thought about the company-wide virtual meeting, held a few weeks prior, during which our executive editor and other managers lauded journalists for asking tough questions and holding powerful people accountable. Apparently, those skills did not inspire the same admiration when aimed at the company itself.
Second bargaining session begins
The Fort Worth community had gone without its newspaper of record for more than two weeks. U.S. House representatives had spoken in our favor and demanded McClatchy bargain fairly. The president of the Texas AFL-CIO, which represents 300,000 people, appeared at our second session. Surely, McClatchy would now take us seriously.
This time, the company finally produced a counterproposal for wages. I set my fourth cup of coffee of the day down on the kitchen table and peered at the Zoom screen. I zoomed in on the “wages” category. For months, the company had refused to move from their dismal wage floor of $45,000.
But today, the company felt generous. They came back and offered us … $46,000.
I lay down on the floor and screamed.
This time, McClatchy finally budged. McClatchy offered a $52,000 minimum salary to current employees and a $50,000 minimum salary for future employees.
“Not enough,” was my first thought.
The company declined to respond to other proposals to create more equitable conditions for staff. Some of its refusals seemed based on nothing but spite. Other McClatchy unions, for example, include staff columnists. But for the Fort Worth NewsGuild, the company refused to allow them to be eligible as union members. They did not really explain why.
We all met at our usual coffee shop to discuss ratifying the contract. The mood was somber. The feeling of accomplishment came later, but on that day, we felt as deflated as Scabby the rat.
I first moved to Texas for a breaking news job at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2018. I was one year out of college and wildly naїve.
Journalism school teaches you that not everyone can make it as a journalist. Professors and alumni feed the idea that journalists are a breed of superhuman who dedicate themselves to a greater cause. What they don’t tell you is that envisioning yourself as a martyr for the cause of journalism makes you extremely exploitable.
Like many journalists, I have often sacrificed self-care for my job. We’re taught that this is how you get more opportunities: Work extra hours, always say “yes,” go above and beyond. And I have had the privilege to tell some incredible, important, and heart-breaking stories. But after five years of putting the news first, all McClatchy has given me is burnout. And I let them light the fuse.
Fort Worth NewsGuild Strike ends
After 24 days, we’d forced McClatchy to cede some ground but were forced to abandon other issues. We ratified the first contract of the Fort Worth NewsGuild on December 30.
By that point, it seemed apparent the company wanted to punish us. We were not quiet. We were bold and loud and angry. Our contract is the result of tenacity, bravery, and sheer will.
We believe in what we fought for: workers’ rights, a better newsroom, and the future of journalism. Our priority is journalism—powerful, local reporting that makes a difference. McClatchy has different priorities.
How could we return to a workplace that had disrespected us so thoroughly? What does the future of the Star-Telegram look like? What does the future of journalism look like under the control of corporations which seem to value profits above all?
I have always avoided rhetorical questions in my journalism. That’s another rule I learned: Don’t pose a question in a story unless you’re prepared to provide an answer. But for these questions, so far, I have no answers.