September 16, 2016 Last Updated 1:33 pm

Sarasota Herald-Tribune newsroom votes to unionize; thoughts on the trend, if it is one

US public opinion on whether those surveyed approve or disapprove of unions has fallen over the past 50 years, but have ticked up in recent years, possibly due to the weak economy

The newsroom staff of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune voted on Thursday to form a union, affiliating with the NewsGuild-CWA. The motion passed narrowly by a vote of 22 to 16 – both a sign that the issue remains contentious, and a sign of the declining size of newsrooms around the country.

“We are ready to have a voice and a place at the table where decisions affecting our staff and our service to the community are made,” investigative reporter Elizabeth Johnson said in a statement. “We’re looking forward to exerting that voice through a fair contract.”

heraldtribune-frontPublisher Pat Dorsey acknowledged the vote, but did not say whether the company would voluntarily recognize the vote

“We had a terrific newsroom yesterday and it will be that same terrific newsroom tomorrow,” Dorsey said. “While this was a split vote, we are all united in continuing to serve our community at a high level long into the future. However, we are a business and our industry continues to face difficult headwinds. I do believe this makes my job much harder, but it does not change our goals.”

The Herald-Tribune’s own story referred to claims that the pro-union newsroom employees had felt threatened by the company, GateHouse Media, over the vote.

“Pro-union newsroom employees said they had been the target of threats and intimidation and they had filed an unfair labor practice complaint alleging a violation of federal law with the National Labor Relations Board office in Tampa<” wrote Scott Carroll, Projects Editor at the Herald-Tribune.

The parent company of GateHouse Media is New Media Investment Group, Inc., a company that is owned by the private equity company Fortress Investment Group LLC. Fortress bought the newspaper chain in 2005 from Liberty Group Publishing, renamed it GateHouse and went public in 2006. But by 2008 the stock had fallen so low that the company was delisted. In 2013, GateHouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. After it emerged from bankruptcy is has continued to expand, and presumably grow its debt once again. The past year or so the company has acquired the Columbus Dispatch from the Wolfe family, The Providence Journal from Belo, and the B2B media company Dolan Company, which it renamed BridgeTower Media.

It also acquired the Las Vegas Review Journal in a deal that remains controversial.

In early 2015, New Media Investment Group bought the paper from Stephens Media, only to turn around and sell it for a nice profit at the end of the year to a mysterious company named News + Media Capital Group LLC. That company ended up being a front for the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

The volatility of the news business continues to lead to both staff cuts and interest in forming unions. Guardian U.S., Al Jazeera America, Vice News, The Huffington Post and the recently bankrupt and sold-off Gawker Media all have seen their newsrooms vote to start a union.

Meanwhile, companies like Advance Publications have worked to get out from union contracts by reorganizing their assets in ways that appear to form new companies while dissolving the old ones.

herald_examiner-bwThe votes for unions then, is very different than from the votes that took place decades ago that formed newsroom unions during the heyday of the newspaper industry. Then, the issues being fought over were pay scales and benefits.

The nine year strike at Hearst’s Los Angeles Herald Examiner followed a successful negotiation between the Newspaper Guild and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. As Hearst dug in its heels, even using Pinkerton Guards for security, the paper which once boasted a daily circulation of over 720,000 saw its readership fall by half (which enabled Times Mirror, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times to come to dominate the market).

When the strike was finally settled, a new union was voted in. The paper was shuttered by Hearst in 1989.

Today’s votes for union representation is really all about regaining a voice in the company. Business may be tough, but decisions are top-down, and often major decisions are seen as being made in corporate suites far from the location of the newsroom. People want to feel they have influence over their futures, but the news business is run by executives who are so very sure they know have the secret sauce for how to transform their businesses – and if they don’t, well then they will exit, often with fat exit bonuses, leaving a trail of destruction behind them.

And how does the trade media treat these new barons of the news business? Like rock stars, featuring them at industry events, offering them plenty of print and digital space to brag up their expertise. When they finally exit, some are even given uncritical features that ignore the number of staff positions they have eliminated, the declining price of the stock, or the failure to meet forecasts.

twjkugoddewt_dkudkzsqaUnions are nearly as popular today as in the past. In 2009, Gallup reported that those who favor unions had fallen below 50% for the first time in their poll. In 1957, three in four of those asked held a favorable view of unions, in 2009 it fell to 48%.

Since 2009, however, the results have changed a bit, as you can see at right.

But at the same time, and maybe why approval for unions has fallen, actual union membership has fallen, too.

As NPR pointed out last year, “50 years ago, nearly a third of U.S. workers belonged to a union. Today, it’s one in 10.”

Belonging to union generally meant better pay, and certainly better benefits. Unionizing was often a risky, and sometimes violent activity. Today, many see unions as preventing reform, such as with teacher unions.

It may no longer be as dangerous to form a union today as it once was, it is no less risky. As the only comment on the Poynter story on the union votes says “it would be interesting to follow up and see how many Florida newspapers, other than the Herald-Trib, devote even a paragraph to this union vote.”

Disclosure: I have been more in management and a shop steward in the newspaper business. Amazingly, I was once both at the same time – possible because the management position was “non-exempt”. During that time I was part of the new contract negotiations… on the side of the union.

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