Paper Chase

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

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."

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.

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.

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