The United Media Guild demands to bargain over the hiring of new journalists at the State Journal-Register in Springfield and the Rockford Register Star.
Why would we take such a direct interest in the company’s newsroom management? The short answer is we are fighting to maintain the quality of journalism at these newspapers and the long-term viability of these institutions.
The long answer is, well, pretty long so we’ll walk you through it.
GateHouse Media, which owns these newspapers under the New Media Investment Group, has slashed the news operations to a fraction of their former size. The company maximizes cash flow so it can pay quarterly dividends, buy more newspapers, slash staffing at those newspapers, maximize cash flow, pay quarterly dividends, buy more newspapers, slash staffing, maximize cash flow . . . you get the idea.
The money guys backing of all of this, Wes Edens and Co. at Fortress Investment Group, collect huge external management fees for orchestrating this plan. If New Media Investment Group eventually collapses due to shrinking paid circulation and declining advertising revenue, Fortress will be just fine. It will have is money. The newspapers and the communities they once served will NOT be just fine.
Concern over the decline of GateHouse/New Media newspapers has inspired journalists to unionize. Newsroom employees in Springfield and Rockford voted to join UMG and this local also assisted two successful organizing drives in Florida, at Lakeland and Sarasota.
To maximize cash flow, GateHouse Media has refused to bargain raises at all of their Guild-represented newspapers for last eight years. It also refuses to bargain raises in first contracts at newly organized newspapers. The company is also demanding extremely low minimum pay rates ($13 per hour, less than a living wage) for its new hires. The UMG has argued for higher minimums that would help attract better applicants, reduce turnover and protect the institutional knowledge in the newsroom.
Because the company won’t set reasonable minimums, the UMG has taken a direct interest in the hiring process. We can demand to bargain the pay rates of new hires in Springfield because GateHouse declared a bargaining impasse and imposed working conditions. By doing so, GateHouse forfeited its managerial discretion under labor law.
In Rockford, we can demand the right to bargain over changes in the workplaces, including new hires, as part of our quest for a first contract at the Register Star.
To better understand the hiring process, the UMG has requested relevant information such as candidates considered, past hiring practices and prevailing hire-in rates at similarly sized newspapers in the chain. Our goal is not to prevent the hiring of new employees, but to make sure the company is attracting quality journalists to fill these key roles in its understaffed newsrooms.
Rockford Register Star executive editor Mark Baldwin complained about this in a letter to our members. In part, it read:
It seems that the Guild’s strategy is to hurt several GateHouse locations because the union is making the same requests in Springfield and Erie. The union’s national agenda ignores the very real needs of the local properties and local communities, and this I find particularly troublesome. I know for a fact that in Springfield, the union’s stalling tactics have delayed hiring by more than six weeks. Insisting on bargaining and then refusing to meet for weeks, and drawing out the process to make it take as long as possible, is standard operating procedure for this Guild local. It defies common sense that the Guild would invoke that tactic when all the Register Star is trying to do is hire good people once we have the approval to do so. It also bothers me that members of the negotiating team, our colleagues, would want to obstruct hiring in this way — especially given the Guild’s outspokenness about the slow pace of hiring already. The union position is rank hypocrisy.
Actually, accusing the Guild of stalling is rank hypocrisy given the actions lead company negotiator, Ali Zoibi. Year after year he steadfastly refuses to bargain raises to end a pay freeze that has prompted wholesale departures. He refuses to raise minimums to the pay level the company has generally used in Springfield and Rockford. He imposed conditions in Springfield and has reiterated, again and again, that he won’t agree to a contract there that includes raises and an increased minimum.
Along the way, the company has run up legal bills while triggering one Unfair Labor Practice charge after another with the National Labor Relations Board. It chooses to fund endless negotiating stall tactics, but it won’t invest in its journalists and its newspapers through fair contracts. That is all part of the overriding goal of maximizing cash flow without regard to the impact on the news-gathering operations.
The company’s stance is absurd and insulting, even by standards in the distressed newspaper industry. But at least it is consistent. Back when Register Star employees were preparing to vote on whether to unionize, GateHouse executive Brad Dennison personally implored them to vote no. But he also admitted the company must find ways besides raises to rewards its superstars because, well, there would be no raises.
Since then Dennison has left from the company. So have many of the Register Star journalists he tried to sway. Many GateHouse publishers, newsroom managers and journalists from around the country are gone too.
The United Media Guild is still here, still fighting for journalists and journalism. We want to work with conscientious editors like Baldwin to make sure cities like Rockford still have a newspaper worth believing in. If that means will must get involved in the hiring process, so be it.
We would rather just have a fair contract, like the ones we have negotiated with other media companies, but GateHouse is having none of that.