Tronc's union-busting tactics
The union as a selfish third party
Tronc conducted an unsuccessful anti-union campaign at the Los Angeles Times, and we expect it to pursue a similarly fallacious and losing effort at the Chicago Tribune. LAT journalists reported that the union-busting tactics were not very sophisticated.
There is no reason why Chicago Tribune journalists should not enjoy the same guild representation and the same seat at the table as our peers at other big, successful news organizations, including The Washington Post and the New York Times. But we need to be prepared for newsroom managers to try to scare us with false stories about pay cuts, layoffs, strikes and dues, while claiming that the union is an outsider. We must be ready with the facts.
Rather than being an outsider, the union is the creation of a grassroots, diverse committee of journalists from all parts of the newsroom who want to address years of mistreatment. Tronc is the outsider, not our employee-formed union. For many years, both under Tronc and previous management, we have fallen behind our guild-represented peers in pay and benefits, and we have none of their job security. We are losing ground while Tronc executives get larger and larger compensation packages and bonuses. The company hires at substandard wages, annually increases the cost of health benefits and then does nothing as good people leave for better-paying jobs.
The National Labor Relations Board provides a guide to the tactics employers can and cannot legally use. If you suspect Tronc is requiring your manager to engage in an unlawful labor practice, take notes and talk to a member of the organizing committee.
Tronc used an anti-union playbook to counter the LAT Guild movement — we expect similar arguments and tactics to be tried here at the Chicago Tribune. These anti-union arguments and the facts that counter them, are adapted from the LAT Guild web site link here:
These arguments go like this: “The union is only after your dues money.” “You don’t need a union to bring your concerns to management.” “We’re a family, the union will get in the way of our relationship.” Tronc is a big, for-profit corporation, not our family, and our concerns were ignored for years before we started talking about collective action. The union is us — the Chicago Tribune workers agreeing together on what we want in our contract.
Tronc will likely warn that “mandatory” and “union-imposed” rules, like limits on how much overtime can be worked in a day, will interfere with our ability to do our jobs and stay competitive. In fact, the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are all still publishing newspapers, adding readers and innovating under all union rules.
We as a newsroom will elect our own local union leadership and bargaining committee, and we’ll all vote on the contract. We decide what rules we ask for. Tribune journalists are the best qualified to know whether a work rule will hurt our ability to do our jobs.
Divide and conquer
Tronc and its representatives will tell you that gains for some workers will come at the expense of others. This divide-and-conquer strategy is designed to sow doubt about our efforts and lie about what this movement is about.
We believe more money should be going to hardworking newsroom employees, instead of all bonuses and raises going to top management. Management should, as a matter of course, plan for regular raises in its yearly budget. That money is there. Tronc already has spent millions of dollars on private jets for its former chairman and other executives and extravagant golden parachutes. Its CEO, Justin Dearborn made more than $8 million in fiscal year 2016, more than $3 million above the pay of New York Times CEO Mark Thompson.
The company also might tell you: “The union may force you to strike.” “You could end up with less.” “The union may fine you, punish you, or get you fired.” “We may not be able to promote you.”
But look at the reality of what has been happening for years in our Chicago Tribune newsroom. If we wanted to offer a bunch of worst-case scenarios in favor of forming a union, they might look like this:
We could keep suffering for years under greedy and inept ownership with no way of getting our concerns addressed.
We could keep working for years and see only a single 2% to 3% cost-of-living increase, while the rising costs of health benefits keep eating into our salaries.
We know that Tronc has and will continue to fire good journalists without warning, without stating a reason or for explanations that would not be accepted in many other states and in many other businesses.
Deep dive: Specific tactics and answers
Here are some specific arguments management might use, and our responses:
1. "The union is a third party"
If we unionize we’ll form our own local union and be part of the NewsGuild, which is part of an even larger union called the Communications Workers of America. This is a good thing for some practical reasons.
Tronc is a large corporation with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. It may put a lot of resources toward defeating our movement and, eventually, fighting our requests in contract negotiations. If we’re going to fight Tronc for fair, competitive pay and better benefits, we need help. CWA and the NewsGuild have the resources — both legal and financial — and the expertise we need to make it a fair fight with Tronc.
Being part of a larger organization means a small portion of our dues will go toward supporting CWA and the Guild, but we’ll actually form and govern our own local union for Chicago Tribune employees. Under Guild rules, dues make up 1.8 percent of an employee’s salary.
The majority of that money will go toward supporting our own union, and we get to elect our own officers from inside the newsroom to administer the money.
We will run all of the day-to-day aspects of our local with some administrative and financial oversight from the Guild, and within the confines of its bylaws. For all intents and purposes we will have our own union. We are the “third party,” and we are not outsiders.
2. “The union is a business that recruits members for dues.”
Tronc may try to imply that the NewsGuild came in and tried to recruit the newsroom to join so they can get our dues money. The truth is that many Chicago Tribune journalists decided we would be more effective working together to address problems such as a lack of pay increases and the company’s struggle with recruitment and retention, among many concerns. We contacted the Guild, not the other way around.
After initial conversations with close colleagues, and after talking with staff at the Los Angeles Times, some Tribune newsroom employees first talked to Guild representatives in December of 2017. The Guild advised us to form an organizing committee and talk to our co-workers to gauge interest, and we found significant support for the formation of a union. We are grateful to the News Guild, as well as organizers of the LAT Guild, for their help and guidance, but this was a newsroom-led, grassroots movement.
3. "The union will force rules on our workplace"
Strict workplace rules are used in blue-collar union shops, like in the construction industry, often to protect workers from injury. It’s true that some union contracts contain rules some consider onerous, and that some newspapers have older contracts with rules that are outdated or don’t make sense, like prohibiting managers from writing or shooting photos, or preventing design editors from laying out a page. But the Guild does not mandate a contract containing rules that don’t make sense in 2018. We as a newsroom will elect the bargaining committee, which will survey everyone on what we do and don’t want in our contract. The newsroom will decide what rules we negotiate for, and we will all vote on the contract to ratify it.
Guild bylaws do mandate certain parts of the contract, for example, that seniority needs to be addressed in wages and working conditions. But that’s a flexible requirement, and we do not have to follow a template for whether and how we factor seniority into policies for promotions or vacation.
There are other work rules that make sense for better working conditions and a better newsroom. One would be getting our old vacation policy back, and improving it. We also would want to specify a reasonable work week while allowing a great degree of flexibility for breaking news, emergencies and individual preferences. We’d also like fair compensation to hourly employees for overtime for overtime and overnight work.
4. "A union means last in, first out"
It’s true that many union contracts use seniority as a strict determination for layoffs, but it’s not a requirement. There have been concerns that previous rounds of layoffs and buyouts have targeted older journalists more than others and that may have to be addressed. We all need more protection, and a clear set of guidelines. We also want to determine whether people have suffered unfair treatment because of race, gender or sexual preference, and to provide protections going forward.
If we form a union, can work collectively on policies the majority of the newsroom — across ages, departments, and levels of experience — can agree on. That would include:
A formal grievance procedure with binding arbitration.
Fair notice of layoffs, preceded by voluntary buyouts.
Recall rights, where if a job opened up in the future a laid off employee would have a right to come back.
The right to move into a previous role/department unaffected by the layoff.
Contractually mandated severance packages.
The organizing committee doesn’t have an opinion on what a layoff clause should look like, and we can’t promise that what the newsroom proposes will be accepted by Tronc. We do intend to create an open, transparent, and democratic process for our proposal. Here’s an example of layoff provisions in the current Dow Jones newspaper contract, page 12.
5. "You could lose money in a contract negotiation."
Any negotiation is a process of give and take. But we are never going to ask for a contract that takes money from some people to boost others, and the newsroom wouldn’t vote for that. When management makes this argument, it is to portray the negotiation process as a zero-sum game and use that tactic to divide the newsroom. This argument is also intended to lower expectations for contract negotiations.
Tronc has money, but is not making Chicago Tribune journalists a priority. We need to bargain collectively to change this.
6. "When you negotiate a contract, you start from zero."
When we negotiate a contract we always start from our current wages and benefits. The “start from zero” argument is not only false, it can be an unfair labor practice. Here’s an excerpt of the summary of the Taylor Dunn decision by the National Labor Relations Board:
“It is well established that ‘bargaining from ground zero’ or ‘bargaining from scratch’ statements by employer representatives violate Section 8(a)(l) of the Act if, in context, they reasonably could be understood by employees as a threat of loss of existing benefits and leave employees with the impression that what they may ultimately receive depends upon what the union can induce the employer to restore. On the other hand, such statements are not violative of the Act when other communications make it clear that any reduction in wages or benefits will occur only as a result of the normal give and take of negotiations.”
7. "The union may force you to strike."
While they are a technical possibility, strikes from major newspapers are extraordinarily rare. We are the union and we would have to vote to have a strike, and the Guild would have to approve it. The most recent large newspaper strike was The Seattle Times in 2000.