In mid-February, a coterie of newspaper higher-ups from around the country gathered at the Omni hotel in downtown Fort Worth for an affair ostentatiously called the Key Executives Mega-Conference. During one presentation, a Chicago-based employment attorney, Michael Rybicki, warned of a rising tide of organized labor in the news business.
“I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little, but I can tell you there has never been the level of union drives in the newspaper industry in my over 40 years than there has been today,” Rybicki said, according to a writeup of his talk by the industry group America’s Newspapers. “The confident prediction that unions are going away was wrong. … So be afraid of union organizing.”
Rybicki’s alarm stemmed from a wave of newsroom organizing that kicked off in 2015 and has spread from all-digital outlets like Gawker to ink-stained stalwarts like the Los Angeles Times. Around the country, corporations and private equity firms have slashed journalists’ pay and benefits and drained the industry of veteran expertise—a trend that intensified as the COVID-19 pandemic vaporized advertising dollars. Nationally, more than 11,000 newsroom jobs vanished in just the first half of this year. Meanwhile, the industry continues to be much whiter than the communities it serves. In response, journalists began demanding a seat at the decision-making table.
In February, the union wave had yet to breach newsrooms in the pro-business Lone Star State. In fact, Texas hadn’t seen a union newspaper since the San Antonio Light shuttered in 1993. For bosses, in other words, the sky showed little sign of falling. But by year’s end two of the state’s major papers would be unionized, including the daily in Cowtown, where Rybicki had issued his admonition. A third paper would be on its way. 2020, it turned out, would be the year newspaper unions roared back to life in Texas.
On July 20, employees of the Dallas Morning News announced they were forming a chapter of the NewsGuild, a union now representing some 25,000 media workers nationwide. The drive to unionize the Morning News, a storied paper with a long history of anti-union management, began after a sudden round of 43 layoffs in 2019. The paper’s parent company, the A.H. Belo Corporation—still in the hands of the family that’s run the Morning News since the 19th century—chose not to play nice. After lawyering up with union-busting attorneys, the company refused to voluntarily recognize the union, forcing workers to petition the federal National Labor Relations Board for an election.
Come October, the Morning News staff voted to unionize in a landslide, 84 to 28. The employees celebrated what they deemed a “historic victory.” The company remained dour; the publisher said in a statement they were “disappointed.”
That same month, journalists just across the Metroplex at the 111-year-old Fort Worth Star-Telegram announced they too were joining the NewsGuild, citing issues including “multiple rounds of layoffs and buyouts.” The Fort Worth paper is owned by the McClatchy Company, which runs about 30 papers around the country and was recently bought out of bankruptcy by the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. In November, McCatchy voluntarily recognized the union at the Star-Telegram, allowing contract negotiations to begin.
“Texas historically has seen itself as anti-union, and I think that’s shifting for the better,” says Kaley Johnson, 25, who’s been a breaking news reporter at the Star-Telegram for two years. “I hope that with these two Dallas-Fort Worth papers unionizing, other papers in the state will see that it’s a very positive and very doable action.”
Sure enough, in December, journalists at the Austin American-Statesman announced they were unionizing as well. After changing hands several times, the Statesman is now owned by Gannett, a corporate name synonymous with brutal downsizing and today the country’s largest newspaper chain with more than 250 dailies. As the company has done across the country, Gannett declined to recognize the Statesman union, meaning the workers will have to hold a formal election early next year.
Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, says the union has won every election it’s had this year. Employees at the three papers in Texas say they started organizing independently, unaware that efforts were brewing at the other outlets. But Schleuss says the state is following a pattern: “You have one campaign that goes public and is successful, then you have sort of a crescendo or an explosion.” For example, he says, five years ago the Guild didn’t represent any Florida newsrooms; now, they represent nine.
Organizers at the Texas papers say they hope to avert future layoffs, or at least ensure they’re carried out with ample notice and decent severance pay. They also hope to root out issues such as potential underpayment of women and staff of color, while increasing diversity. Through contract negotiations with management, they can gain access to detailed financial data from the company to inform their demands. In Dallas and Fort Worth, the unions had their first bargaining sessions in December, and workers from both papers are now strategizing together weekly. In all, winning a contract may take a year or more.
The employees stress that they aren’t attempting a hostile takeover; rather, they simply want to preserve the work they value and the institutions they care for. “Every single person who works for our paper, they love their job and they’re damn good at it,” says Leah Waters, 32, a copy editor at the Dallas Morning News and chair of the union there. “We want to wake up every day and do it, and we’re just asking to get paid for it and to not be fired with 15 minutes’ notice. … I want this paper to outlive me, and I just can’t see the current lack of investment in the newsroom being sustainable.”
Some corporate executives may cry Chicken Little, but unionizing workers say they just want to stop the sky from falling.
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