Charlotte Observer becomes fourth McClatchy-owned newspaper to unionize in Carolinas

The Charlotte Observer, the largest newspaper by circulation in North Carolina, unionized in late February, with voluntary recognition from leadership coming in less than a week later. This is the fourth of eight Carolinas-based McClatchy-owned news organizations to unionize in the past three years.

The Charlotte Observer News Guild reports that “an overwhelming majority” of the Observer’s 35 reporters, photographers and digital journalists declared their desire to join the union.

“Since I joined the staff of The Charlotte Observer nearly two years ago, there’s been positive change — especially in recent months — to diversify our newsroom and coverage,” Marginalized Communities Reporter Devna Bose said in a press release. “We want to continue that work, and the best way to do that is through a strong newsroom where journalists of all backgrounds are paid equitably and are able to sustain long careers in an industry that’s historically catered to white voices.”

The union is seeking “diversity in our newsroom and coverage, adequate layoff protections and a renewed commitment to retention and recruitment,” according to its mission statement.

“We were able to voluntarily recognize the guild and we did that very quickly, for a number of reasons,” Executive Editor Rana Cash told Eric Frederick as part of the NC Local News Workshop In Conversation webinar series on March 4. “Among them, the fact that we have the same mission, which is to do great journalism…(the staff) has specific needs and we’re able to address what’s important to our staff: mentoring, training, retention, culture, getting them back into an office space.”

The former office building of The Charlotte Observer. “The Charlotte Observer” by danxoneil is marked with CC BY 2.0.

The move comes at a time when local newsrooms across the country are unionizing, often fighting for higher wages, employee protection and overall improved working conditions, as hedge funds and private equity firms are intensifying a rapidly consolidated local news market.

The Observer, one of the largest major metro newspapers in the South, follows the lead of The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina — a fellow McClatchy property less than two hours away that unionized in April 2021. In fall 2020, newsroom employees in two other McClatchy-owned properties, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, also unionized.

North and South Carolina are both states with right-to-work laws, which means “states have the authority to determine whether workers can be required to join a labor union to get or keep a job,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Essentially, unions in right-to-work states cannot require employees to pay union dues if they don’t want to.

From The Charlotte Observer News Union’s mission statement: “We seek these protections now after years of instability and cuts, most recently seen during McClatchy’s bankruptcy and subsequent takeover by Chatham Asset Management, a New Jersey-based hedge fund. Too many talented colleagues have walked out the door in recent years.”

The Observer is one of 30 McClatchy-owned news organizations acquired by Chatham Asset Management, which bought the McClatchy brand in July 2020 after the organization filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February of the same year. Because the organization filed for bankruptcy, McClatchy shed all pension responsibilities for 24,000 current and former employees at the time. The termination of the pension plan was effective as of August 31, 2020.

McClatchy set a minimum salary of $45,000 for both The Charlotte Observer and The News and Observer after the acquisition, which resulted in pay increases for some employees, as reported by The Assembly. Further, Chatham won the bid for acquisition over hedge fund Alden Capital, which proposed to cut more than a third of the company’s employees upon acquisition, because Chatham promised to retain all employees and most senior leaders.

In October 2016, Chatham acquired the largest newspaper chain in Canada, including properties such as The Vancouver Sun, The National Post and more. Upon acquisition, the chain saw shuttered newspapers, reduced budgets for salaries and benefits and a further centralization of operations that “made parts of its 106 newspapers into clones of one another,” as reported by The New York Times.

According to The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsroom Cutback Tracker, there were no newsroom layoffs across the McClatchy properties during the pandemic, including The Observer; however, there were layoffs in 2020 on the business side and furloughs that affected 4.4 percent of the company.