Sick of stagnant pay, shrinking benefits, and newsroom layoffs, reporters and other workers at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville voted to join a national union this week, a historic vote that makes the 154-year-old newspaper the third in Florida to do so.
“We think organizing as a union lets the staff speak in a voice that the ownership may consider more closely than it considers the voices of individual employees,” said Steve Patterson, a veteran Times-Union reporter.
The Times Union was purchased by GateHouse Media, and the company cut staff shortly afterward. In all, the newsroom staff has plunged from 100 to 40 in the past five years – which makes it hard to adequately cover the sprawling city of Jacksonville.
Workers at two other GateHouse newspapers – the Lakeland Ledger and the Sarasota Herald Tribune – voted two years ago to join the News Guild- Communication Workers of America, and those papers are now engaged in the lengthy process of negotiating a contract.
Now that employees at the Times-Union have voted to unionize, they will begin contract negotiations – which could take a year or two. The News Guild- Communication Workers of America union is the same one that represents journalists and other workers at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media organizations. The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune recently unionized, and the Associated Press is in the midst of contentious contract negotiations, with workers pointing out the great disparity between health insurance and other benefits enjoyed by management versus those offered to front-line journalists.
Dean Olsen, a News Guild member and health care reporter at GateHouse’s State Journal-Register newspaper in Peoria, Illinois, said that union organizing at newspapers has slumped with the massive downsizing of the industry, which some analysts say has lost half its jobs in the past 10 years.
“Journalists tend to be very aggressive in covering their beats, but do they do a good job of trying to preserve their ability to do journalism? To advocate for their careers?” Olsen said. “We believe that unions do that. We don’t promise journalists that they will get a pay raise if they form a union. But we can promise they will have a voice they’ve never had before, and they will have a stronger voice.”
Many people are confused by Florida’s status as a so-called “right to work,” anti-union state, Olsen said.
“People think that in these right-to-work states that you can’t have unions, but that’s not true,” he said. “You have every right as in any other state, except you can’t have a statement that says everyone in your bargaining unit has to belong and pay dues.”
Still, whether people join the union or not, all employees at a News Guild papers are legally entitled to raises, benefits, representation for unfair terminations, and other benefits. Another key provision – known as “status quo” – is that once employees vote to unionize, management can’t make massive changes to working conditions.
Newsrooms around the country have been stunned to see new corporate buyers come in that seemingly have no interest in journalism. The owners – many of them hedge funds – slash newsroom staff, cut benefits, and sell the buildings to make real estate profits.
Journalists at the Denver Post made headlines by publishing a blistering editorial against its new owner, Alden Global Capital, calling the firm “vulture capitalists” for eviscerating the city’s daily newspaper (staff was cut 70 percent over seven years) and raising subscription rates so readers get less for more.
Olsen said the News Guild’s simple goal is “good jobs and good journalism.”
“We think that the model of having employed journalists with decent wages is really in the public’s best interest,” he said. “We’re the watchdogs, obviously, for the community. Everybody should care and want journalism to be preserved.”