Paper Chase

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

Respected reporters began to leave for other jobs or, in some cases, other careers. Their beats were not filled, and the Times began to miss important city government, legal, and crime stories. The copy desk was cut back so dramatically that if one copy editor called in sick, all five editions were forced to run a "common paper," which left little room for localized community news.

"Common papers suck, because it means that urban residents are reading about some suburban housewife whose dachshund was run over, and suburban residents are reading about some urban city council minutiae," one reporter says. "Nobody likes it, and people are calling to complain."

Another reporter said the rise in healthcare costs and the decline in the newspaper's quality have changed things for her. She is thinking about advocating openly in the newsroom for a union. "I could be the Norma Rae," she says. "Every day some new crap happens that nobody can believe. We always felt protected here because the Times was profitable, but healthcare increases showed us how vulnerable we are. MediaNews is going to do what suits them and we really don't matter."

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.

The One Big BANG campaign has finally gained some momentum. Hall is convinced he has enough support to call for an official vote, which requires 30 percent of BANG employees to sign cards saying they want the Newspaper Guild to represent them. But actually winning a vote is much more uncertain. "If we held the election today, we'd have 100 votes," he says. "We need 50 more."

Starting in January, the guild will ramp up the campaign. Hall and other organizers will contact employees at home. They will put pressure on supportive employees to take a bigger role in the campaign by forming e-mail lists and actively courting their co-workers.

Hall was encouraged by a phone call he received from a Contra Costa Times employee asking him to come to a meeting to discuss the possibility of forming a union. "It may seem like a small thing, but someone at the Times was taking matters into their own hands, and that's huge," he says. "This is their deal, and we're really just here to help."

Singleton is confident BANG employees will never support a union. "I think that when you look carefully at what the employees got at ANG with a union and what the Contra Costa Times reporters received, you will determine that employees without a union fare much better," he says. "I am confident the Bay Area News Group employees will make the right decision."

SF Weekly did not mention to Singleton that Knight Ridder gave the Times employees their current pay scales and benefits, not MediaNews.

Hall is pushing for a vote on the issue by spring. The One Big BANG campaign has taken a lot of time away from his Chronicle science beat. "Either they want the union, or they don't," he says. "I want to get back to writing about stem cells. There have been a lot of cuts at the Chron, too. It's been like musical chairs over there, and you don't want to be out of the room when the music stops playing."

National Guild president Linda Foley says if a spring vote fails, she is resolved to continue campaigning for a unionized BANG. "We'll be here as long as it takes to get that recognition back, however long it takes,"she says.

John Geluardi was a Contra Costa Times reporter until last August.

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