Paper Chase

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

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.

Carl Hall has taken a six-month leave from his job as a San Francisco Chronicle 
science reporter to lead an effort to unionize the Contra Costa Times.
Jen Siska
Carl Hall has taken a six-month leave from his job as a San Francisco Chronicle science reporter to lead an effort to unionize the Contra Costa Times.
Jen Siska
Union organizer Hall in the Newspaper Guild’s regional office in San Francisco.

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.

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