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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.