Statesman journalists take a stand

The staff at the Austin American-Statesman and its six community affiliates have announced plans to unionize. The newly-formed Austin NewsGuild says the “vast majority” of newsroom employees have signed union authorization cards that have been sent to the National Labor Relations Board and are asking Gannett, the media conglomerate that owns the paper, to voluntarily recognize the union and to begin bargaining with it over wages, benefits, staffing, working conditions and hiring practices. 

A press release released by the union included statements of support from a variety of reporters young and old, including 47-year sports vet Kirk Bohls, 14-year food writer Addie Broyles, 16-year editorial assistant Veronica Serrano. Over on Twitter just about every Statesman reporter/editor I follow has expressed support.

The Austin NewsGuild is an affiliate of NewsGuild, formerly the Newspaper Guild, a division of the Communication Workers of America that represents thousands of reporters at national and local publications. Unions used to be common in the news industry and many of the most prominent publications — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal — have remained unionized. However, in the last few years a rising labor consciousness, particularly among young journalists, has led to widespread unionization in media. Recently-unionized outlets include major dailies such as the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, prestige publications such as the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and digital outlets like Buzzfeed, Salon and Slate. 

Two years ago, when I was writing about the challenges facing the Statesman in the wake of its acquisition by Gatehouse (which has since merged with Gannett), I spoke to numerous current and former Statesman employees about the prospect of unionization and encountered little interest. Some didn’t understand the benefits and some mistakenly believed that unions couldn’t really work in Texas because it is a “right to work” state. 

In fact “right to work,” a cynical misnomer concocted by anti-union Dallas Morning News editorialist William Ruggles in 1941 and embraced by businesses in the years since, only prohibits union contracts that require workers to pay dues. It is a transparent attempt to weaken unions by creating a “freeloader” effect, but unions in RTW states enjoy all of the same federally-protected rights to bargain. Nevada, for instance, is RTW but is nevertheless home to extremely powerful unions that are credited with winning middle-class wages & benefits for unskilled workers in the gaming industry. 

In the last couple years, other papers in historically union-hostile states have organized, including staff at a number of Gannett or Gatehouse-owned papers  who have grown sick of the company’s relentless gutting of newsrooms. Notable examples at Gannett/Gatehouse include the Arizona Republic, the Southwest Florida News, the Palm Beach Post, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Delaware News Journal. 

And most notably, in October staff at the Dallas Morning News voted overwhelmingly to unionize. Days later management at the Fort Worth Star Telegram didn’t bother forcing a vote and elected to voluntarily recognize their staff’s union

According to sources, the organizing drive at the Statesman kicked off in April. As is usually the case in successful union drives, a relatively small number of employees worked deliberately and quietly to gain support for the concept among others before submitting the union petition to management. Although you only need a majority of workers to vote in support of unionization, the goal is generally to have a much stronger majority. First, because you can expect management to work hard to dissuade workers from voting yes, and second because a union that only has the support of a slim majority is not particularly strong. 

Gannett has tried to fight back against union drives in the past but in many, many cases in the last few years it has failed. I should be wary of confidence projected by the union organizers but support certainly seems to be pretty high among staff. 

I wish the Statesman staff the best in this fight. Like any community institution, the local paper is frequently flawed. But we must work to make it better. Part of making it better is supporting its workers fight to earn a decent living.

You can email to tell management in less than 150 words that you support the Statesman workers’ bid to have a seat at the table. You can also follow the union on Twitter and Instagram and make your support known to management there.


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