Newspaper Unions in Texas Fight for First Contracts

Big corporate chains are proving to be recalcitrant negotiators.


In the notoriously anti-labor Lone Star State, three recently unionized newsrooms are fighting for their first collective bargaining agreements, the contracts that will determine their future working conditions. Often, this is a long and gruelling process. At Texas’ three union newspapers, workers report that bargaining is taking dramatically different paths depending on who owns the outlet.

In July of 2020, journalists at the Dallas Morning News became the first to announce they were unionizing in Texas. They were followed by workers at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Austin American-Statesman. All decided to join the NewsGuild, part of a growing nationwide trend as journalists fought back against layoffs and corporate predation. There hadn’t been a union paper in Texas since the San Antonio Light shuttered in 1993. 

The Morning News is owned by the DallasNews Corporation, formerly called the A.H. Belo Corporation, which owns no other papers outside Dallas and has been controlled by the same family since the 19th century. The paper has a long anti-labor history, including possibly coining the misleading term “right to work,” and management opposed the union effort last year. But, after workers voted in a landslide in October to unionize, the company has reportedly proved rather amenable at the bargaining table.

Since late last year, Morning News workers and management have been meeting about once a month, according to the chair of the union’s bargaining team, and the two sides have reached tentative agreements on almost all “non-economic” issues. That includes items such as protection against spontaneous or unjust firings and a requirement that more interviewees be from underrepresented groups. Things have moved quickly: “The company’s been like, ‘What do we have to do to get this finished today?’” says Leah Waters, a Morning News copy editor and the bargaining chair.

The sides still have to haggle over economics, like wages and severance, which may be more contentious. But Waters thinks the contract could be finished by the end of this year. She also says even with the contract unfinished, the union serves as a useful tool. With workers better organized and more confident approaching management, she says it’s easier to deal with ongoing job-related issues like schedule changes; plus, during contract negotiations, employers are legally limited in their ability to reduce wages or benefits. “It kind of feels like we’ve always had [the union]; it’s now an integral part of the process of solving problems in our workplace.”

On a July investors call, majority owner and president of the board Robert Decherd—who helped defeat a strike at the paper’s printing press in 1974—complemented the Morning News union. “There is an understanding on the part of our newsroom leaders, meaning Guild leaders, that this really is a situation where we have to look at each other’s priorities with an open mind. … This has not been contentious, and it is moving along,” he said.

By contrast, negotiations at the neighboring Fort Worth Star-Telegram have been stuck in the mud. The Star-Telegram is owned by the McClatchy Company, which runs about 30 papers nationwide and is itself owned by the New Jersey-based hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. Newsroom employees have only met with management a few times since unionizing last November, and talks were stalled for months as the two sides couldn’t agree even on an appropriate time of day to meet. “McClatchy was dragging its feet and not willing to compromise on when we met and so that stalled everything,” says Kaley Johnson, a Star-Telegram reporter and president of the union there. So far, the two sides have only finalized a handful of very minor agreements.

There are 11 NewsGuild newsrooms within McClatchy; most are currently bargaining for their first contract. Johnson is heartened by coordination she’s seen between the groups: Workers recently defeated a proposal McClatchy was rolling out at certain papers to tie reporters’ pay to pageviews, she says. But Johnson’s aggravated by the glacial pace of bargaining at the Star-Telegram, and fears it could easily be two years before they have a contract. “To be frank, it’s moving slowly and it’s very frustrating.” 

Jon Schleuss, national president of the NewsGuild, says the delay is intentional: “The overall strategy … is to make the negotiations drag out for as long as possible.”

At the Austin American-Statesman, which is owned by Gannett—the country’s largest newspaper chain with some 250 publications—bargaining waters have been choppy too. “I feel Gannett has been a lot more dismissive of our proposals than [the DallasNews Corporation] has with the Dallas NewsGuild,” says Katie Hall, a courts reporter and chair of the Statesman union. “It does make me very jealous to see a company listening to its employees.”

Statesman negotiators have not reached any tentative agreements yet. About 40 Gannett newsrooms are unionized. Statesman workers have tried to suggest contract terms that Gannett had already agreed to at another paper, Hall says, but the idea was rejected out of hand. Further, the union says Gannett is refusing to reinstate a 401(k) employer match—temporarily suspended due to COVID-19—for Statesman journalists while restoring the benefit at the “vast majority” of other papers. The guild has filed a charge against the company with the federal National Labor Relations Board, alleging the company is illegally retaliating against the workers for unionizing by withholding the 401(k) match.

Hall says she doesn’t have a sense of how long a contract will take at the Statesman. Gannett declined to comment for this story, and McClatchy did not respond to a request for comment.

In a recent analysis, Poynter found that on average it took NewsGuild newsrooms a year and a half to secure a first contract but, in at least one case, bargaining took nearly six years.