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Aug. 22 — NewsGuild-CWA is asking the NLRB to conduct an election to represent editorial staffers at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, a petition that advances a campaign to organize journalists in a largely nonunion newspaper industry in Florida, union leaders and university professors told Bloomberg BNA.
NewsGuild-CWA filed a petition Aug. 17 asking the National Labor Relations Board’s Region 12 to conduct a secret ballot election to represent about 40 reporters, photographers, copy editors and other employees at the Sarasota paper, the NewsGuild said in a written statement. The petition comes five days after the Guild won an NLRB election to represent about 30 editorial staffers at the Ledger newspaper in Lakeland, Fla.
The Guild, which is part of the Communications Workers of America, has touted the Ledger as the “only paper in Florida, and the first in modern memory, to have a unionized newsroom.” The success stands to give NewsGuild a stronger chance to organize journalists within the right-to-work state, industry observers told Bloomberg BNA.
“Success in an organizing situation allows other people to get the courage and fortitude to see it through,” said Carla Katz, a union organizing professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Organizing is hard and it’s very hard nowadays, and it does take a lot of persistence. Victories in one place will encourage other people to look deep and think that they might be in a right position for voice in their job as well.”
There are 33 daily newspapers in Florida, according to the Florida Press Association, a trade group.
The Guild’s organizing campaign is fueled by workplace issues such as stagnant wages and staffers seeking a voice in the decision-making process. Those issues mirror what has led to unions successfully organizing digital newsrooms such as the Huffington Post, ThinkProgress and the since-shuttered Al Jazeera America, union officials and industry observers have told Bloomberg BNA.
As for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Ledger, organizing is built with a combination that includes union density and targeting a single owner. Both publications are owned by Pittsford, N.Y.-based Gatehouse Media.
NewsGuild-CWA President Bernie Lunzer told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 22 that the union could organize more newspapers in Florida. The union has a history of representing journalists at GateHouse properties, he said.
“We’ve been interested in GateHouse for awhile,” Lunzer said.
The NewsGuild has about 25,000 members in North America, including journalists at GateHouse-owned newspapers such as the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in Worchester, Mass.
GateHouse owns about 125 daily newspapers across the country, including nine in Florida, according to its website. Among them are the Daytona Beach News Journal and the Gainesville Sun.
Bloomberg BNA was unsuccessful reaching officials at GateHouse headquarters Aug. 22. The publishers at the Ledger and Sarasota Herald-Tribune e-mailed Bloomberg BNA written statements voicing disappointment regarding unionizing their individual newsrooms.
“I am very disappointed some of our newsroom employees decided to go down this road,” Herald-Tribune publisher Patrick Dorsey said Aug. 22. “I firmly believe local journalism is going to continue to need a more creative, flexible and nimble atmosphere to be successful in the future and we have built a talented staff and cutting edge structure that embodies those traits.”
Dorsey said the current workplace has allowed the Herald-Tribune to win several awards, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The Herald-Tribune, just like other newspapers around the country, is seeking ways to adapt to a shrinking subscriber base as some readers shift to other news sources.
“As an industry, and as a local media organization, we are in a turbulent transformation that can be scary to some and requires additional creativity, flexibility and effort to thrive,” Dorsey said. “Adding more rules and restrictions is not part of a recipe for future success.”
The Herald-Tribune has a daily circulation of 73,700 and a Sunday circulation of 94,800, according to the Guild.
The Guild’s organizing campaign follows the recent loss of about 16 newsroom “employees through layoffs and other downsizing” at the publication, the NewsGuild said in its statement.
Before being acquired by GateHouse in 2015, the Herald-Tribune was owned by the New York Times Co. and then by Halifax Media.
The organizing of the two Florida GateHouse papers followed some behind-the-scenes discussions between the newsroom journalists, before contacting the NewsGuild staff, Lunzer said.
The effort to organize the newsroom has been lauded by Herald-Tribune staffers such as Billy Cox, a Herald-Tribune reporter since 2006.
“We’re making this move because we owe our community the kind of journalism that has earned the Herald-Tribune two Pulitzer prizes over the past five years,” Cox said in a written statement provided to Bloomberg BNA. “We have a newsroom environment that has supported ‘impact journalism’ for years, but our corporate culture fails to financially support the dedicated staff members who produce that work.”
A “mission statement” by supporters of the unionizing effort said the staffers seek a means to keep the publication successful, respectable and sustainable.
“We give our community a voice, and we deserve one, too. Journalism is honorable and worth fighting for. If we cannot stand up for ourselves, we certainly cannot stand up for anyone else. A good contract will let us do just that,” according to the statement.
Some staffers at the newspaper have gone without raises for more than eight years. A similar case of stagnant wages were echoed by some staff at the Ledger, according to the union.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor professor at Cornell University, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 12 that there’s a breaking point when workers will take a gamble and seek to organize their workplace. The newspaper industry is no different, she said.
“It’s good jobs turning into bad jobs,” she said. “These are people who love the work they do, but it’s a breaking point for anyone.”
Bronfenbrenner said the idea of unionizing newsrooms in Florida should be no surprise considering the density of union-represented workers in the Sunshine State’s public and private industries. That includes dockworkers represented by the International Longshoremen’s Association and hospitality workers represented by UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union.
“There’s also a high density in the public sector. There’s teachers, police, firefighters and state workers, and they’re organized,” she said. “There’s a lot of public sector organizing and these are unionized workers who have spouses and children who have had a very positive experience with union organizing.”
The effort to organize newsrooms in Florida adds to an overall campaign to reinvigorate union involvement in the news industry, an area that has lost members with staff reductions.
“Seeing these organizing drives, even though they are in the traditional news media forum, they are part of a larger interest and re-interest in the organizing of the news industry and that’s important,” said Katz, who is also the former president of CWA Local 1034, in Trenton, N.J. “It did seem that for a long time, the pundits were believing that the unions were dead in the news industry, and that is clearly not the case.”
Guild president Lunzer agreed, saying there is an overall effort to improve workplace rights in the news industry.
“There have been people who have been quick to dismiss the print industry, but what we are seeing is there is a general interest in media,” he said regarding organizing. “These are difficult times, but the ideal situation is you want to make sure you get representation.”
Bloomberg BNA, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bloomberg LP, has editorial staffers represented by Local 32035 of the NewsGuild-CWA.
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