Paper Chase

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

When Armstrong was publisher of the Times Advocate in northern San Diego, there were two failed attempts to organize employees. Both were so polarizing that there was acrimony in the newsroom for years afterward.

That workplace hostility forged Armstrong's attitude toward newspaper unions. "People who are pro-union feel very strongly about the issue, and sometimes they don't realize that nonunion people feel strongly, too," he says. "Those two campaigns were very divisive, and they pit employee against employee and employee against editor. Working in a union-free environment has reinforced the value of employees working with managers in a direct way to move the enterprise forward without the influence of a third party."

Armstrong says the BANG newspapers have suffered a revenue loss this year with the decline of the real-estate business. The downturn is permeating the entire Contra Costa County marketplace, he says, "and I don't see how a union is going to make that better."

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.

Several Times employees have been open about their anti-union sentiments. One veteran reporter says Times employees could actually lose ground on salaries and benefits in order to establish parity with ANG staffers. "Besides, management is already going ballistic," she says. "Do we really want to take that on, and if we do, will it do any good? I just want to do journalism."

Steve Dempsey, the one Times staffer who agreed to go on the record, is a former ANG employee who says the union was disappointing. The union had such a low profile among the six newspapers that many employees didn't even know they were represented, he says. He is concerned that the One Big BANG campaign could disrupt the company's new focus by distracting management and employees. "This is a great storm we are going through," he says, "and the union, it seems to me, is more willing to let the paper go down instead of standing aside to let it flourish."

Veteran Hayward Daily Review reporter Karen Holzmeister became an ANG union devotee in 2002. Editors asked Holzmeister, who had worked for the newspaper since 1973, to write an increasing amount of stories, following budget cuts. In addition to her normal Hayward beat, she was asked to report on two unincorporated areas and regional elections. Finally, Holzmeister says, she collapsed in her doctor's office from work fatigue. She took two weeks of accumulated sick leave; when she returned, her editor had demoted her to the Castro Valley beat, which was typically reserved for rookie reporters.

Holzmeister, who describes herself as a "happy employee" for most of her career, was shocked. She was considering hiring a lawyer when Tribune reporters and union officers Josh Richman and Robert Gammon (the latter of whom is now with the East Bay Express) showed up at her door to offer the guild's help. "I couldn't understand why I was being treated this way after I had dedicated my professional life to the company," she says. "Frankly, had the guild not offered to help me, I would have no recourse whatsoever." The guild was not able to get her regular beat back, but Holzmeister says she was able to retrieve her self-respect.

Hall said the ANG union won some important pay raises for its members after they went ten years with no raise at all, but he admitted it was a relatively small, editorial union that had little clout with management.

"They did good work, but it was like hunting elephant with a BB gun," Hall says. "If BANG unionizes, we'll have a cluster, too. With the Merc and the Chron and other newspapers, we would be a force they couldn't take lightly."

By mid-November, the guild's campaign was in danger of collapsing under its own weight when it got a lucky break. BANG management announced open enrollment for healthcare benefits, with some bad news: Premiums and copayments were rising, while the scope of available services would be shrinking.

BANG employees quickly discovered that the unionized employees at the Mercury News were getting only modest increases. Times reporters were stunned to learn that the monthly premium for an employee with children was being bumped up to $300 each month for midrange health insurance.

Discussion of the cost hikes led to the first open discussion of the One Big BANG campaign. Healthcare costs are increasing across the board, but Times employees wondered whether a union could slow the escalation — or at least give them an opportunity to bargain over premiums.

Hall turned these new questions back on the employees because, he says, they are really the only ones who can answer. "It would be their union," he says. "What they agree to in their contract, pay scales, benefits, healthcare ceilings — it would be up to them."

Newsroom employees then began to discuss the slow but steady decline in the quality of the Times. Under the MediaNews regime, the "imaging desk" was eliminated, which meant photos in the five regional editions were frequently published with unbalanced colors or colors that ran. Ads began to appear on page three, which typically contains the most community news — and then management allowed ads on the front page, the most sacred real estate of any newspaper.

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