Precarious conditions in local news sparks collective action (page 5)

Challenges ahead

A union can’t change the business model challenges that local news organizations face. The flurry of news unions being recognized or winning their elections doesn’t necessarily guarantee an organizational shift, Daley said. Instead, workers are likely to see contract negotiations and incremental changes in working conditions in an industry that remains precarious.

Unlike with Amazon or Starbucks, he said, there’s not a lot of union-busting activity.  “Ironically, (ownership) is not hesitant about unionizing. When (news organizations) unionize, it’s in some way, shape or form related to disrespect,” Daley said.

Even when contracts are ratified, it’s unusual to see large-scale changes in pay. Often, a 2 to 4 percent change will be negotiated, Daley said, but that’s a net loss of wages during a time with 7 percent inflation. 

“Trying to break through that is very challenging,” Daley said. 

Staff reduction

A successful contract doesn’t protect against staff reduction. In fact, after a contract agreement, layoffs or buyout offers are not uncommon:

  • WBUR laid off 29 employees.
  • KCRW offered buyouts for at least 24 employees, or about 20% of its content creators.
  • The Timesland Guild learned a longtime copy editor would be laid off and two positions would not be backfilled just three days after their new contract was ratified.

Katherine Knott, the unit chair for the Blue Ridge NewsGuild, told Axios in a May 3 report that across the 12 unionized newsrooms, roughly 61 roles have been eliminated across 10 newsrooms, mostly through layoffs and buyouts and some via attrition.

“It’s not so much anti-union but anti-employee, and it’s short term because it’s a vicious cycle: Less employees, less local news; reduce headcount, lose more readers,” Daley said.

The disruptive cycle of the industry is still felt by unionized employees. 

“You’re not able to have as big of an impact as you want,” Graham said. “This is still a business that owns these papers, they can invest in what they want. We don’t have huge sway in the business side.”

Editor vulnerability

Though unions often can — and do — provide more protections for employees, editors are often left out. 

As members of the management team, editors are usually not allowed to join unions. As such, they’re not protected by contractual union agreements, even though they can be included in layoffs or buyout offers.

In fact, in the Axios report published May 3, reporters Sara Fischer and Kerry Flynn reported that of the 61 people laid-off by Lee, many employees were non-union and middle managers.

Cheung is on the board of the News Leaders Association and said they’re working with their members on training for editors in those positions. 

“An editor’s job is not dealing with union negotiations, so it’s just really, how do we (at NLA) help equip editors to have those conversations… to think about working with the union differently,” he said. “They have a different pressure, right — They get pressure from publishers — so I think it’s really, how do you balance the needs of all the constituents?” 

‘Misconception makes it even harder to join unions’

An additional pressure: Right-to-work laws, which vary by state — and the misconceptions surrounding them. 

“Right-to-work laws make it hard to organize,” said David Zonderman, the head of the history department at North Carolina State who studies and teaches labor history. “But the misconception makes it even harder to join unions.”

At its core, right-to-work means union members have to collect dues from members rather than automatically deducting them from paychecks. 

“The reality of right-to-work is in a private sector, you’re not required to pay dues to the union,” Schleuss said. “You have the same right to form a union because it’s protected under a law.”

Right-to-work laws expose unions to the free-rider problem, said Zonderman. In his classes, he uses the example of a joining a sorority or fraternity — members wouldn’t want a new housemate to move in without paying the dues. 

Play-to-win mentality

Though labor unions have won changes, that may limit unionization efforts to their individual wins. 

Company-wide changes don’t always apply to news organizations in the midst of bargaining. For example, though McClatchy’s new policy raises the wage floor at its organizations, labor unions in bargaining are excluded from this change. 

Next chapter

"Precarious conditions in local news sparks collective action" table of contents

  1. Precarious conditions in local news sparks collective action
  2. A state of the unions
  3. Show me the money: Contract negotiations
  4. Wins & Improvements
  5. Challenges ahead
  6. Toward the future