Paper Chase

The Guild is up against a cost-cutting mogul and declining revenues, but the union continues to seek converts

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."

Bay Area newspaper powerhouse Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews.
Associated Press
Bay Area newspaper powerhouse Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews.
Hall meets with former members of the ANG union to discuss the One Big BANG campaign.
Jen Siska
Hall meets with former members of the ANG union to discuss the One Big BANG campaign.

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."

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