Paper chase: Bay-area newspaper employees vs. an anti-union mogul

by John Geluardi, SF Weekly

Most days the Contra Costa Times newsroom in Walnut Creek hums with activity. Deadline-driven reporters pore over documents, phone sources, and tap out stories. Editors monitor a relentless flow of written information for fairness and accuracy, and copy editors review it and arrange it on the page for the next day's paper. The sprawling room is honeycombed with cubicles grouped into sections: news, features, sports, photography. The intense focus necessary to put out a daily newspaper does not lend itself to much workplace socializing, so employees in the balkanized sections rarely speak to those in other departments even though they spend their workdays just a few feet apart.

This state of quasi-alienation is common in many newsrooms, but at the Times a new dimension has taken hold — paranoia.

Last month, one staffer recalls, a handful of copy editors were talking about how overworked they were since the Times management froze hiring for unfilled positions. That's when management walked within earshot. The editor eyed the small klatch with measured disapproval for apparently neglecting their work, then walked away. The copy editors quickly and quietly turned back to their computer screens.

A few months ago, the small infraction would have been quickly forgotten. But in the new atmosphere of unease, the copy editors wondered what had been overheard. Could the idle conversation be interpreted as being down on management? Could their jobs be in jeopardy?

One source of such angst is the work of Carl Hall, a San Francisco Chronicle science reporter and lifelong union activist. For the past three months Hall has led a campaign to woo the Times staff into forming a union, while the paper's notoriously anti-union management has begun to take steps to protect the henhouse. Employees, uncertain of how management might react to potential union supporters in the ranks, won't openly discuss the issue. "It's like a pink, cross-eyed elephant is walking on two legs through the newsroom and everyone is afraid to mention it," one staffer said.

The national Newspaper Guild is funding a $500,000 organizing campaign, which Hall has wryly dubbed "One Big BANG: A One-Guild Universe." This at once evokes the 19th-century trade unionists' One Big Union concept and pokes fun at the East Bay branch of the Bay Area News Group (that's right, BANG for short), a cluster of 11 newspapers of which the Contra Costa Times is part.

Newspaper unions across the country are closely watching how the One Big BANG campaign plays out, because its success or failure could signal a critical turning point for organized labor in a newspaper industry wracked by dwindling readership, declining revenues, and decimated newsrooms.

The Newspaper Guild's organizing campaign was set in motion in late summer after MediaNews chose to ignore the established Alameda News Group (ANG) union that represented 120 employees at six East Bay newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune.

MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton had recently gained unprecedented influence in Northern California by purchasing every major Bay Area daily newspaper except the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Several months after the $1 billion purchase, the union that represented ANG had begun negotiating its contract. But MediaNews began to cancel scheduled contract meetings without explanation. As a local representative in the Northern California Media Workers Guild, Hall was lead negotiator on the contract, and he was getting suspicious.

Then management dropped the bomb. At a hastily called private meeting at the Media Workers Guild's Natoma Street office, which overlooks the Chronicle's parking lot, ANG's general counsel Marshall Anstandig and human resources director Karen Austin told the guild's executive officer Doug Cuthbertson, Hall, and Tribune reporter Paul Rosynsky that the ANG union no longer existed as far as management was concerned.

MediaNews had decided to merge the 120 employees of ANG and the 180 nonunion employees of the Contra Costa Times into the new BANG cluster. With 300 employees, the union, which had 80 dues-paying members, no longer had the official support of 50 percent of staff that it required for recognition. MediaNews had, without warning, shut down the union its members had relied on for salary and benefit negotiations and arbitration, right in front of them.

No shrinking violet when it comes to union squabbles, Singleton has had a legendary career that has taken him from his childhood home in Graham, Texas — where he grew up in a ramshackle four-room house with no indoor plumbing — to the heights of the newspaper publishing industry. His MediaNews Group is the fourth-largest newspaper company in the country, with 57 papers including The Denver Post, the Daily News in Los Angeles, and The Salt Lake Tribune as well as the San Jose Mercury News.

Singleton's success has been characterized by purchasing financially troubled newspapers and revitalizing them by making deep staffing cuts and then clustering newsrooms to save on printing and administrative costs. The editorial content of his newspapers typically declines as sharply as the overhead. Singleton's ruthless efficiency has given him dual reputations as either the scourge of the newspaper industry for elevating the bottom line over quality journalism, or a hero who has saved more papers, and thus jobs, than he has eliminated.

In a recent telephone interview, Singleton defended his decision to stop recognizing the ANG union. "It was the only fair thing to do," he said. "We had to recognize the rights of the majority of employees."

Hall was stunned. He saw Media-News' clustering as gerrymandering and unabashed union-busting. "It's unfair to just suddenly stop recognizing a 20-year-old union that had a tradition of progressive labor relations, and it was disrespectful to do it without any warning," he says. "I was offended by that."

Hall wasn't alone. The 34,000-member national Newspaper Guild was so ticked off that it filed multiple unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which are still pending, and put up the $500,000 for the One Big BANG campaign. Guild president Linda Foley says the campaign is perhaps the most important effort under way in the newspaper industry. "We have an organizing campaign going on in Southern California and ongoing negotiations in Pennsylvania, but what's going on in the Bay Area is serious," she says. "MediaNews just decided to withdraw recognition of a bargaining unit, and we don't intend to let that go."

MediaNews' hostile act so incensed Hall that he took a guild-paid six-month leave from the Chronicle to lead the campaign. "I was the guy who was available, and why not?" he says. "I've been doing this since I was 20 years old."

Hall's roots in organized labor go back to his childhood in the small town of Berger, Missouri, where his stepfather worked in a tent-manufacturing mill. "He never wanted to be promoted because he hated management so much," Hall says in a Missourian's hybrid accent in which the midland twang is softened by a Southern drawl. "He would come home complaining about the guys in his car pool who didn't support the union. He just couldn't understand it."

Hall was a young crime reporter at the Rutland Herald in Vermont when he first attempted to organize a newsroom. He was fired before employees could bring the issue to a vote, but the paper ultimately approved the union, and Hall was offered his job back. He refused, but the experience confirmed him as a union man.

"That solidified it," he says. "By then I had read a bunch of stuff and I knew people needed a union, otherwise they were always begging for stuff, and I'm not into begging or kissing ass."

Success for the One Big BANG campaign will mean convincing at least 151 BANG employees to vote for a union. Hall can rely on about 80 votes from members of the former ANG union, who still pay reduced dues, but convincing Contra Costa Times employees to form a union won't be easy.

Times employees have never been unionized, and many are unsure how unions operate or what they do. Another complication is that the Times' former corporate owner, the now-defunct Knight Ridder, treated its employees well. They were paid more than their unionized ANG brethren, which makes them wary of what the guild may be able to do for them.

Meanwhile, the newspaper industry is in such terrible financial shape that no newspaper guild can make promises about better pay scales, benefits and, most vitally, job protections.

In recent years, newspaper unions have lost ground to the harsh economic realities of the industry. Newspapers have experienced declining readership and falling revenue since the early 1970s. That decline has been greatly accelerated by fierce competition from the Internet, so newsrooms have seen thousands of layoffs and cutbacks nationwide.

In the Bay Area, the San Jose Mercury News is down to 200 editorial employees, from more than 400 in 2005. Shortly after MediaNews purchased the Santa Cruz Sentinel in February, a quarter of its staff was cut, its presses were sold for scrap, and its historic building in downtown Santa Cruz was sold. The gutted newspaper now operates out of a generic office park in Scotts Valley.

Even the Chronicle's union, one of the strongest in the country, agreed to numerous givebacks in its 2005 contract. Negotiators had little choice, since the paper had lost a whopping $62 million in 2004. Members gave back vacation time, sick pay, and picket-line protections. The contract also required 40 percent of the guild's workforce to take an immediate pay cut. Most alarmingly, the union was unable to protect 200 jobs.

Hall is quick to point out that the union was able to negotiate buyouts and early retirement for all 200 Chron employees and that there were no involuntary layoffs. But that is unlikely to inspire Times employees to stand on their desks and chant "Union."

"Sometimes it's about a strategic fallback without giving up more than you have to," he says. "We decided to live and fight another day."

Keenly aware of the industry's downturn, the national Newspaper Guild has been giving itself a makeover. Union officers are promoting the guild as a more management-friendly organization. The guild is saying it can be a force for preserving quality journalism in what Hall calls "an environment of cataclysmic upheaval," and a partner to management in the struggle to revitalize a financially troubled industry. "There's a new attitude at the guild of efficiency and quality," Hall says. "We need to make MediaNews understand that they shouldn't fight us; they should be listening to us."

To that end, the guild wants to move into areas that have long been under the purview of management, such as taking an active role in multimedia training so reporters can increase their value to newspapers' Web sites, and supporting reporters who argue for covering important stories rather than turning out quick puff pieces. And, somewhat controversially, the guild wants to help improve efficiency in advertising departments to help grow new revenue.

"The quickest way to lose a union is to lose a newspaper," Hall says. "Unions need to become the voice of those newsroom employees who are committed to improving newspapers and helping them find some stability. If we can't do that, then we're just the voice of the past."

Hall points to a four-year contract recently approved at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is also owned by MediaNews. Guild negotiators agreed to concessions and givebacks, but there were some other aspects that were not typical union-management horse trading.

For example, the Pioneer Press union is working with management to secure a $400,000 state grant to fund a multimedia training program to teach employees how to record video interviews and them post them on the Web. Guild representatives also took an active role in finding a healthcare plan that saved members money on premiums.

In what was seen by some as a contentious move, Pioneer Press reporters conducted an investigative-style analysis of the advertising department. They identified inefficiencies and put together a report suggesting ways the department could generate more revenue. "In the past, the union would have used that information to embarrass the company, but in this case they presented possible solutions to management," Hall says. "We transformed the union into a progressive force for positive change from within the company."

But that, media watchdogs say, is a dangerous breach of the traditional firewall between the newsroom and the advertising department. When reporters begin working with management to improve ad revenues, there is a danger their stories will begin to favor the interests of business over those of the general public, says John McManus, director of Grade the News, a Web site that monitors the quality of Bay Area news media.

Labor organizations are also watching how the Newspaper Guild is cozying up to someone like Singleton. There is a tipping point where a union can get so interested in the health of the business that its members' issues can become secondary.

That isn't always the case, says David Novogrodsky, former executive director of the Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21. It's always important for membership to monitor relations between the company and the union, but in a struggling industry like newspaper publishing, labor can be a real asset to management if they can form a basis of trust. "If you get a few newspaper employees in a room and ask them how a creaky newspaper can be improved, you'll get 100 ideas," he says. "The fact of the matter is, newspapers are in a precipitous fall and their owners don't know how they're going to get out of it. Maybe they can use the help."

Singleton is highly skeptical of any newspaper union's ability to make a positive impact on newspapers' financial health. He says the guild's makeover is superficial and that it is trying to create a new role for itself in areas of the business where it isn't wanted, nor has any right to be. "I've been in the newspaper business for three and a half decades, and I've never had a union work for me," he says. "Management has its own responsibilities, and for the life of me, I've never seen a union contribute to those."

Hall is undaunted. If the guild's makeover is successful in the BANG campaign, he feels it could be a model that would fit typically nonunion employees at Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo.

"You hear about how well these guys are treated, but I don't buy it," he says. "It's not all about how much Ping-Pong you can play. What about self-determination, having a say over the quality of your work and your paycheck?"

ANG union members kicked off the One Big BANG campaign in August. They began slowly, with casual phone calls to friends and acquaintances at the Contra Costa Times. That turned into one-on-one beer dates in which the union was talked up to Times employees, and then small after-work gatherings at bars where there were straightforward pitches to form a union. There have also been house parties, mostly at the homes of seasoned Chronicle reporters who live in the East Bay.

But by mid-November, the campaign had made little headway. At one house party at the Walnut Creek home of Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan, only two Times employees showed up, and one seemed especially nervous that an SF Weekly reporter was at the meeting collecting information for a story. She asked three times that her name not be used, and sought assurance that no unattributed quotes or personal descriptions would be used in case they might provide clues to her identity.

Neither of the Times reporters agreed to distribute glossy guild flyers that contained the photographs of prominent guild members such as Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik, Pulitzer Prize–winning Chronicle photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice, the Oakland Tribune's legendary crime reporter Harry Harris, and venerable Chronicle science writer David Perlman.

Some Times staffers say that employees' lack of interest may stem from a low-level malaise that began three years ago when Knight Ridder first put the newspaper up for sale. "There's a lot of people here who just want things to settle, and to them this union campaign seems like unnecessary drama that's going to disturb things all over again," said one reporter, who asked not to be identified. "And there's a fear that management might retaliate and people don't know what their rights are."

In fact, of the 22 Times newsroom employees SF Weekly spoke with, only one agreed to be quoted by name. One reporter expressed alarm at the lack of newsroom discussion: "I don't know whether I want to support the union — in fact, I have some serious doubts — but I'd like to at least hear some debate about it."

Hall is frustrated by the lack of dialog in the Times newsroom. Journalists, by definition, are supposed to question ideas, policies, and authority, he says, and it's unnerving to see them reluctant to discuss such an important issue in their own workplace. "Staff has to come up from under their desks and talk about this for good or bad," he says. "You can't just sit back and become demoralized and despondent and then take whatever the benevolent boss feels like handing out this week. One of the hallmarks of a good newsroom is a willingness to stand up to employers, and it's certainly the hallmark of a good journalist."

Professional organizer Pia Basudev, who is working for the guild, likes to explain it this way: "We haven't found our Norma Rae yet," she says, referring to the eponymous 1979 Sally Field movie about a plucky millworker in a backward Southern town who attempts to organize her co-workers. Rae overcomes hostile management, the loss of her job, and workers' doubts to win approval for a union.

But BANG employees don't work all day on their feet surrounded by deafening textile machines for $2.25 an hour. Without that kind of immediate need, it's difficult to find an employee who will risk leading a union campaign from within, especially in an industry where mass layoffs are so frequent.

Singleton's close-to-the-bone business model has often put him in conflict with the national guild, and he has developed a reputation for being anti-union, which he says is undeserved. But in a Nov. 4 editorial in his flagship paper, The Denver Post, Singleton went on a front-page, above-the-fold tirade against Colorado Governor Bill Ritter for issuing an executive order that allowed state employees to join a union. Singleton compared Ritter to Jimmy Hoffa and called him a "toady for labor bosses" and "a bagman for unions and special interests."

Back in 1998, 10 years after negotiating the first contract with the Alameda News Group, Singleton says he sent union-represented employees a two-page, single-spaced letter detailing the benefits they had lost through poor bargaining. It was a slap in the face, says veteran Oakland Tribune reporter Josh Richman, who admitted that the novice union could have negotiated a better contract despite the protections and pay raises it achieved. "I remember that letter well," he says. "None of us had ever seen a CEO who was so proud of the way he had deprived his employees. He took such pleasure in it."

Still, Singleton says he is bewildered by claims that he is anti-union. "I don't know where that reputation comes from," he says. "We have unions at many of our newspapers, and we usually reach agreement with them at contract time. I don't see how that's anti-union."

In fact, MediaNews employs more union-represented workers than any other daily newspaper publisher. Of the company's 10,500 employees, 4,000 are unionized by 41 separate contracts. And none of Singleton's newspapers has had a significant strike or work stoppage.

Singleton is supported on these claims from an unlikely source: Carl Hall, who says Singleton has saved newspapers and many jobs by cutting costs and trouble-shooting inefficiencies. "I'm not going to paint a mustache on him and call him the Evil Lord of Darkness," Hall says. "But efficiency is not enough; we have to be advocates for quality, and if we can convince MediaNews of that and create a platform for quality journalism, I will absolutely be the first to say that Dean Singleton is the savior of newspapers."

But it's no secret in the Times newsroom that BANG publisher John Armstrong prefers to work in a nonunion environment. On Nov. 5, he held a mandatory seminar for all BANG editors and managers in which they were given a set of talking points should the subject of the One Big BANG campaign come up.

Those points go something like this: Editors first assure the employees that it is absolutely their right to unionize. Next, they should seamlessly segue into the poor financial health of the newspaper industry and how there is nothing a union can do about that. Finally, they should politely bring up how the ANG union did so little for its members.

When Armstrong was publisher of the Times Advocate in northern San Diego, there were two failed attempts to organize employees. Both were so polarizing that there was acrimony in the newsroom for years afterward.

That workplace hostility forged Armstrong's attitude toward newspaper unions. "People who are pro-union feel very strongly about the issue, and sometimes they don't realize that nonunion people feel strongly, too," he says. "Those two campaigns were very divisive, and they pit employee against employee and employee against editor. Working in a union-free environment has reinforced the value of employees working with managers in a direct way to move the enterprise forward without the influence of a third party."

Armstrong says the BANG newspapers have suffered a revenue loss this year with the decline of the real-estate business. The downturn is permeating the entire Contra Costa County marketplace, he says, "and I don't see how a union is going to make that better."

Several Times employees have been open about their anti-union sentiments. One veteran reporter says Times employees could actually lose ground on salaries and benefits in order to establish parity with ANG staffers. "Besides, management is already going ballistic," she says. "Do we really want to take that on, and if we do, will it do any good? I just want to do journalism."

Steve Dempsey, the one Times staffer who agreed to go on the record, is a former ANG employee who says the union was disappointing. The union had such a low profile among the six newspapers that many employees didn't even know they were represented, he says. He is concerned that the One Big BANG campaign could disrupt the company's new focus by distracting management and employees. "This is a great storm we are going through," he says, "and the union, it seems to me, is more willing to let the paper go down instead of standing aside to let it flourish."

Veteran Hayward Daily Review reporter Karen Holzmeister became an ANG union devotee in 2002. Editors asked Holzmeister, who had worked for the newspaper since 1973, to write an increasing amount of stories, following budget cuts. In addition to her normal Hayward beat, she was asked to report on two unincorporated areas and regional elections. Finally, Holzmeister says, she collapsed in her doctor's office from work fatigue. She took two weeks of accumulated sick leave; when she returned, her editor had demoted her to the Castro Valley beat, which was typically reserved for rookie reporters.

Holzmeister, who describes herself as a "happy employee" for most of her career, was shocked. She was considering hiring a lawyer when Tribune reporters and union officers Josh Richman and Robert Gammon (the latter of whom is now with the East Bay Express) showed up at her door to offer the guild's help. "I couldn't understand why I was being treated this way after I had dedicated my professional life to the company," she says. "Frankly, had the guild not offered to help me, I would have no recourse whatsoever." The guild was not able to get her regular beat back, but Holzmeister says she was able to retrieve her self-respect.

Hall said the ANG union won some important pay raises for its members after they went ten years with no raise at all, but he admitted it was a relatively small, editorial union that had little clout with management.

"They did good work, but it was like hunting elephant with a BB gun," Hall says. "If BANG unionizes, we'll have a cluster, too. With the Merc and the Chron and other newspapers, we would be a force they couldn't take lightly."

By mid-November, the guild's campaign was in danger of collapsing under its own weight when it got a lucky break. BANG management announced open enrollment for healthcare benefits, with some bad news: Premiums and copayments were rising, while the scope of available services would be shrinking.

BANG employees quickly discovered that the unionized employees at the Mercury News were getting only modest increases. Times reporters were stunned to learn that the monthly premium for an employee with children was being bumped up to $300 each month for midrange health insurance.

Discussion of the cost hikes led to the first open discussion of the One Big BANG campaign. Healthcare costs are increasing across the board, but Times employees wondered whether a union could slow the escalation — or at least give them an opportunity to bargain over premiums.

Hall turned these new questions back on the employees because, he says, they are really the only ones who can answer. "It would be their union," he says. "What they agree to in their contract, pay scales, benefits, healthcare ceilings — it would be up to them."

Newsroom employees then began to discuss the slow but steady decline in the quality of the Times. Under the MediaNews regime, the "imaging desk" was eliminated, which meant photos in the five regional editions were frequently published with unbalanced colors or colors that ran. Ads began to appear on page three, which typically contains the most community news — and then management allowed ads on the front page, the most sacred real estate of any newspaper.

Respected reporters began to leave for other jobs or, in some cases, other careers. Their beats were not filled, and the Times began to miss important city government, legal, and crime stories. The copy desk was cut back so dramatically that if one copy editor called in sick, all five editions were forced to run a "common paper," which left little room for localized community news.

"Common papers suck, because it means that urban residents are reading about some suburban housewife whose dachshund was run over, and suburban residents are reading about some urban city council minutiae," one reporter says. "Nobody likes it, and people are calling to complain."

Another reporter said the rise in healthcare costs and the decline in the newspaper's quality have changed things for her. She is thinking about advocating openly in the newsroom for a union. "I could be the Norma Rae," she says. "Every day some new crap happens that nobody can believe. We always felt protected here because the Times was profitable, but healthcare increases showed us how vulnerable we are. MediaNews is going to do what suits them and we really don't matter."

The One Big BANG campaign has finally gained some momentum. Hall is convinced he has enough support to call for an official vote, which requires 30 percent of BANG employees to sign cards saying they want the Newspaper Guild to represent them. But actually winning a vote is much more uncertain. "If we held the election today, we'd have 100 votes," he says. "We need 50 more."

Starting in January, the guild will ramp up the campaign. Hall and other organizers will contact employees at home. They will put pressure on supportive employees to take a bigger role in the campaign by forming e-mail lists and actively courting their co-workers.

Hall was encouraged by a phone call he received from a Contra Costa Times employee asking him to come to a meeting to discuss the possibility of forming a union. "It may seem like a small thing, but someone at the Times was taking matters into their own hands, and that's huge," he says. "This is their deal, and we're really just here to help."

Singleton is confident BANG employees will never support a union. "I think that when you look carefully at what the employees got at ANG with a union and what the Contra Costa Times reporters received, you will determine that employees without a union fare much better," he says. "I am confident the Bay Area News Group employees will make the right decision."

SF Weekly did not mention to Singleton that Knight Ridder gave the Times employees their current pay scales and benefits, not MediaNews.

Hall is pushing for a vote on the issue by spring. The One Big BANG campaign has taken a lot of time away from his Chronicle science beat. "Either they want the union, or they don't," he says. "I want to get back to writing about stem cells. There have been a lot of cuts at the Chron, too. It's been like musical chairs over there, and you don't want to be out of the room when the music stops playing."

National Guild president Linda Foley says if a spring vote fails, she is resolved to continue campaigning for a unionized BANG. "We'll be here as long as it takes to get that recognition back, however long it takes,"she says.

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