Fort Worth Star-Telegram workers on strike
Courtesy of Fort Worth Newsguild

‘Striking Does Work’: Fort Worth Journalists Win Only Newspaper Union Contract in Texas

Following a historic win in Cowtown, NewsGuild workers at papers in Dallas and Austin are still bargaining.

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On the heels of an unprecedented 24-day labor strike late last year, around 20 journalists at the 117-year-old Fort Worth Star-Telegram have ratified the only union contract at a Texas newspaper. The union victory comes after more than two years of difficult negotiations and forms part of a surge in nationwide newsroom organizing since the mid-2010s as journalists have increasingly fought back against corporate predation in a struggling industry. Workers at two other Texas papers, in Dallas and Austin, are still bargaining for union contracts after roughly two years.

Before launching the labor strike on November 28—likely the first open-ended newsroom work stoppage in Texas history—Kaley Johnson, a justice reporter at the Star-Telegram and vice president of the paper’s union, the Fort Worth NewsGuild, said negotiations were largely stuck in the mud. The Star-Telegram, which serves the state’s fifth-largest city and politically crucial Tarrant County, is owned by the McClatchy Company, a chain of about 30 papers nationwide. In turn, McClatchy is now controlled not by the family that ran it from the 19th century until 2020, but by the New Jersey-based hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. These corporate profiteers, per Johnson, were unwilling to move from a wage floor of $45,000 or consider other demands for months on end.

“The main reason we went on strike was because they weren’t negotiating at all; they were committed to stalling tactics and stonewalling,” she said. Once the work stoppage began, McClatchy swiftly cut off health insurance for the strikers and even posted temporary jobs to replace the journalists. Meanwhile, the workers raised some $51,000 on GoFundMe to sustain the effort. Suddenly, a few weeks into the stoppage, the company offered a new wage floor of $52,000 for current employees and $50,000 for future hires, along with other concessions on layoff procedures and bereavement leave. 

“It appears that the longer we were on strike, the more pressure they did feel to compromise with us, and that ultimately is what led to us being able to have those wins … so I guess striking does work,” Johnson said.

There are many policies the union forewent by inking the deal. One example that galled many workers: The company will still offer less parental leave to parents who gave birth vaginally than by c-section. And the union had deemed that $57,500 was the necessary salary to live comfortably in Fort Worth. But Johnson said the three-year agreement is a starting point: “They definitely still did not move enough to create equitable conditions, but it’s enough for a first contract.” The Fort Worth newsroom joins about a dozen other McClatchy papers with union contracts under the NewsGuild, the country’s preeminent journalists’ union with some 26,000 members.

The Star-Telegram was part of a trio of Texas newspapers that announced union drives in 2020, including the Dallas Morning News and the Austin American-Statesman. Prior, there hadn’t been a union paper in the Lone Star State since the San Antonio Light shuttered in 1993. For most of the last two years, workers reported that bargaining progressed comparatively well at the Morning News while journalists at the Star-Telegram and the Statesman, which is owned by the country’s largest newspaper chain, Gannett, struggled mightily against their out-of-state corporate owners. 

The 138-year-old Morning News, often deemed the state’s leading paper, is owned by the DallasNews Corporation, which runs no other papers outside Dallas and has been controlled by the same family since the 19th century. (Robert Decherd, the family scion, passed the CEO title to a non-family member last year but remained the majority shareholder.) The paper has a long anti-union history, including possibly coining the misnomer “right to work” and crushing a printing press strike. But after workers voted overwhelmingly in October 2020 to unionize, the company has reportedly been somewhat amenable. 

Leah Waters, a housing reporter at the Morning News and chair of the Dallas NewsGuild, said in early January that the sides could reach a tentative agreement within weeks. The last issue to resolve, she said, concerns the company’s ability to replace in-house staff with outside contractors. The parties have already agreed, per Waters, to a new minimum salary scale ranging from $55,000 to $80,000 along with provisions expanding parental leave, increasing diversity, and protecting against unjust firings. Crucially, the sides have agreed to ample notice before layoffs. (The Dallas organizing effort began after the company laid off 43 employees with almost no notice in early 2019.) Waters said the new wage jump will be “life-changing” for some staff.

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There has been turmoil, including recent fights over work-from-home exemptions for Dallas staff and the closure of the paper’s Washington, D.C. office. But Waters remains grateful not to be bargaining with a huge corporate chain or hedge fund. “If we were dealing with the parasites, the spineless parameciums, in Gannett, I’m not sure we would ever have a contract, and I feel for my brothers and sisters in McClatchy and Gannett,” she said.

Like most in the industry, the Morning News is facing economic headwinds. Its digital subscription base is up eightfold since 2016, but that hasn’t compensated for the relentless decline in print subscriptions and profitable print advertising. Waters recognizes this and even said the paper should consider going non-profit. “The business model isn’t working, but the solution isn’t to continue to erode workers’ rights and working conditions and then by default, the product of local journalism,” she said. 

McClatchy, the DallasNews Corporation, and Gannett did not immediately respond to Texas Observer requests for comment.

As for the Austin American-Statesman, owned by Gannett—a company name synonymous with brutal downsizing and the nation’s largest newspaper owner with some 200 dailies—progress has been characteristically challenging. Katie Hall, a courts reporter for the paper and chair of the Austin NewsGuild, said the company hadn’t made any significant concessions in nearly two years and the sides hadn’t even begun seriously discussing economic issues like wages. The Austin union has filed about a dozen complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces U.S. labor law, alleging various violations of the workers’ bargaining prerogatives. “It’s indicative of a company that at times doesn’t respect our rights as a union,” Hall said.

In a 2021 annual report, Gannett said 17 percent of its U.S. workforce was unionized and stated, “Our business and results of operations could be materially adversely affected if current or additional labor negotiations or contracts were to further restrict our ability to maximize the efficiency of our operations.” 

Gannett’s top executive, Mike Reed, received nearly $8 million in total compensation in 2021. In the latter months of last year alone, the company laid off or bought out hundreds of journalists around the country, though the unionized Austin workers—many of whom reportedly haven’t seen a raise in more than five years—were spared.

Hall doesn’t know if or when there could be a bargaining breakthrough at the Statesman, but she certainly had her eyes on the successful Fort Worth strike. “Whether what Fort Worth did is in our future is entirely up to Gannett; if they want to create a contract that allows for the survival of a local newspaper in Austin, they need to ensure we’re paid a wage that allows us to live in Austin,” she said. “But it will get to a point where if we get fed up, we will begin to escalate the actions that we take.”