Gannett unions offer protections against latest cost-cutting measures — for now

Gannett employees were hit with a devastating blow on Wednesday afternoon, when the company announced a number of cost-cutting measures impacting staff’s pay and benefits. But employees who are members of newsroom unions at Gannett’s publications have some protection from these actions – at least, for now.

“This really underscored why we all unionized, why this has been such a push at Gannett recently,” said Jack McLoone, unit chair at Gannett’s Atlantic Digital Optimization Team (DOT).

A Gannett spokesperson said the measures will impact all U.S. employees and will go into effect immediately, but noted union employees received a message that stated, in part: “Please note that this information may or may not apply to you if you are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, represented by a union or work for an entity that is part of a Joint Operating Agreement.”

“We’ve been transparent about the need to take immediate action given the uncertain and challenging economic environment. While difficult, we are confident these decisions will ensure Gannett’s future,” the Gannett spokesperson said in an email. Gannett’s third-quarter earnings report is expected to come out next month.

Gannett’s latest cost-cutting measures

  • Gannett employees are required to take five days of unpaid leave in December
  • Gannett offered voluntary buyouts
  • 401(k) matches are temporarily suspended for contributions made on or after Oct. 24.
  • Gannett is implementing a hiring freeze except for critical roles.
  • Employees were given the option to voluntarily reduce their work hours to reflect a 20% pay cut and request a one- to six-month unpaid sabbatical.
  • These measures were announced in a town hall meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes, held roughly two months after Gannett laid off 400 employees (about 3% of its workforce) and closed 400 open positions.
  • In a memo to staff, CEO Mike Reed cited “the deteriorating macroeconomic environment” as the reason for these actions.

Both sides are heading for conflict. Based on conversations with five Gannett employees at unionized newsrooms and a NewsGuild employee, it’s clear that employees who are members of a union have some protections that limit the impact these measures will have on them.

The NewsGuild represents more than 1,500 Gannett journalists across roughly 50 of the over 200 daily U.S. newspapers Gannett owns. Over 15 Gannett newsrooms have unionized with the NewsGuild since the beginning of 2020. The labor union will hold an emergency caucus meeting for Gannett unions across the country to discuss next steps before the end of this week, a NewsGuild employee said.

The safety of status quo

The protections insulating union members from Gannett’s cost-cutting measures fall under what is known as “status quo.” This condition of union negotiations prevents an employer from making unilateral changes to mandatory subjects of bargaining until both parties either agree on a new contract or reach a stand-off.

“When we’re in status quo – because we unionized – guild members are currently protected from some of these most devastating cuts,” said a Gannett employee who asked to remain anonymous.

Unions with an agreed-upon contract have set terms and conditions of employment, including severance benefits as well as when and how layoffs can be implemented. Mandatory subjects of bargaining covered by the status quo cannot be changed without reaching an agreement with an employer; they include wages, schedules and layoffs, among others. For new unions in the process of bargaining a contract, protections to the status quo are more powerful. Employers are generally prohibited from unilaterally changing the terms and conditions of employment.

The threat of eventual impacts

But this doesn’t mean unionized employees are in the clear for long.

“All that does is kick the can to bargaining,” said Mike Davis, reporter at Asbury Park Press and vice chair of the APP-MCJ Guild. Davis’ newsroom has been bargaining a contract since December 2021. Gannett CEO Reed previously told Gannett employees that he expects to settle contracts with unions by the end of this year.

“I’ve got [guild] members who have food security issues, who have housing security issues. To even think someone would consider volunteering for a 15% to 20% pay cut just shows that the people who are in this company are completely out of touch,” Davis said.

The Asbury Park Press was looking to hire at least three reporters, to cover breaking news, metro and sports. McLoone’s team is hiring for at least two producer positions.

“It’s unclear whether [the measures] are going to impact our open roles,” said McLoone, who is a Gannett producer overseeing mostly New Jersey-based digital news sites. “We’re short-staffed as it is.”

And while these latest cost-cutting measures will not immediately impact union members, it does affect their newsrooms.

“An injury to one is an injury to all,” said Rebekah Sanders, consumer protection reporter at The Arizona Republic, Gannett’s second-largest newsroom.

Managers, for example, are not part of a union, and their potential reduction in hours could take a toll on the oversight at their publications.

“Less managers working and editing our stories affects our newsroom,” the Gannett employee said. “It has a huge impact.”

Some newsrooms are in a gray area: Employees of the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky announced their efforts to unionize in August, but they have not yet been officially recognized (ballots will be sent out for a formal vote to unionize on Oct. 20, and the results will be tallied on Nov. 18). In the meantime, the newsroom is not under status quo protections, which go into effect after the election is certified, Davis explained.

“This whole [unionizing] effort was not about yelling really loudly. It was about forcing Gannett to essentially pay the employees what they’re worth, give us the benefits that we think we deserve, and to invest in local news and journalism,” Davis said. “I can’t see a situation where we let up on that at any point … We are willing to do whatever it takes to get what we deserve.”