Chicago Tribune staff: “It’s time to form a union”
In this Monday, April 25, 2016, file photo, Chicago Tribune and other newspapers are displayed at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. A union drive is now underway among the paper's staff. | Kiichiro Sato / AP

CHICAGO (PAI)—In an organizing move most Chicagoans, along with veteran journalists with a sense of history, never expected to see, the Chicago Newspaper Guild-CWA officially announced an organizing drive at the Chicago Tribune. No election date has been set.

If successful, it would mark a watershed for the Guild, the city, and the paper. In its 171-year history, the Tribune, long Chicago’s leading newspaper, has been strongly—if not violently—anti-union and pro-right wing, combined.

For at least a century, the Tribune was the voice of Midwestern isolationism. It was a power in Republican politics since at least the Great Chicago Fire. In its heyday under opinionated sole owner Col. Robert R. McCormick, its circulation extended into many states. The Trib was and is an unrelenting foe of FDR, the New Deal, Democrats, organized labor, and minorities. For the Tribune, in its news and editorial columns, Ike was too liberal.

A decades-old State Department blue fact book, with details about the U.S., listed every newspaper in the U.S. as “Independent,” except the Tribune: “Independent Republican.” The Tribune under McCormick was known for slanting its news columns, not just its editorials. And it loved Mayor Richard J. Daley—the father and the “Boss,” if not his son, also mayor.

The paper’s present owners, an investment group, appear to care little about the quality of the paper or its staff, and that helped lead to the union drive, the 46-staffer organizing committee announced in an open letter to their colleagues.

“In the past few weeks, we’ve talked to most of you about our hopes for the Chicago Tribune and its community publications. Those conversations have convinced us: It’s time to form a union. We’re hoping you’ll join us,” the letter said.

Rather than improving the Tribune or paying heed to its staff, the company owners’ last major move was an unsuccessful bid to buy Chicago’s other metro daily, the Sun-Times, which is unionized—in order to close it. That bid lost to a syndicate headed by a wealthy local Democratic alderman and including the Chicago Federation of Labor.

The Tribune Company, now calling itself Tronc, also owns other papers. And its attitude shows up at them, too. When the staff at its #2 publication, The Los Angeles Times, voted this year to unionize with The News Guild, Tronc sold the Times to a local Chinese multimillionaire weeks later. The Guild-represented staff at the Baltimore Sun is still seeking a local buyer.

Before the current owners, real estate magnate Sam Zell milked the Tribune and Tronc, then took it into bankruptcy. Zell’s reign was so bad that even the federal bankruptcy referee, prodded by the Sun’s Guild rep on the creditors’ committee, rejected bonuses to Zell’s team.

The Tribune union organizing drive is the Guild’s fifth campaign among journalists this year. The others were at the Los Angeles Times, the Casper (Wyom.) Star-Tribune, Mic.com, and the Missoula (Mont). Independent. On April 16, the 12 staff members at the 100-plus year-old New Republic voted to join the News Guild of New York. The staff of this publication, People’s World, also members of the Chicago News Guild, ratified their first collective bargaining agreement earlier this year.

“There’s an uprising among journalists—a fight for the heart and soul of the profession,” said News Guild President Bernie Lunzer. “It’s evident in the union organizing campaigns. It’s also evident in the defiant actions of the editors of the Denver Post and in the reaction to the outrageous demands of Sinclair Broadcasting.”

Sinclair, which is even more right-wing—it sends its radio and TV stations canned must-read scripts for their newscasts pushing conservative ideologies and the Trump administration—is trying to buy Tronc’s radio network. Various progressive groups are opposing that bid before the Federal Communications Commission. The Denver Post’s editorials blast the investment group which owns Colorado’s leading daily and which has drastically cut its staff to increase profits.

“Journalism is in turmoil, but as the industry searches for a business model that allows working journalists to remain true to our mission, there is tremendous potential for positive change. The journalists of the Chicago Tribune are playing a great part in that struggle,” Lunzer said.

The organizing committee described themselves as “veterans and newcomers, among them many prize-winners, all dedicated to providing our readers with the first-rate coverage of local, state, and regional news they expect.”

Their letter continues:

“But a series of corporate owners—Tronc being only the most recent—has jeopardized our ability to do great work. Regular raises, cost-of-living adjustments, and job security are non-existent. The cost of our healthcare has significantly increased. Our maternity and paternity policy is inadequate.

“Development opportunities—the kind that allow us to achieve professional goals and to enrich our news coverage—are rare. We have lost many talented colleagues to higher-paying jobs that offer better protections and more possibilities for advancement.

“And although we live in a racially and ethnically diverse city and state, diversity is not well-reflected in the newsroom. A more diverse staff will help guide coverage that fully reflects the lives of the many types of communities in and around Chicago. We can do better.

“Our primary goal in forming a union is to give us, the Tribune’s journalists, a voice in setting the course for the publications we hold dear. This includes the Aurora Beacon-News, Daily Southtown, Naperville Sun, Elgin Courier-News, RedEye and Hoy,” the organizers said.

“We believe the union is an investment – in our work, in ourselves, in our readers, in our city and state.” They signed off with a slogan: “For the Chicago Tribune. For Chicago.

Tribune home page editor Charlie Johnson told the city’s NPR station, “They have looted the company, and the Tronc executives have paid themselves outsized salaries.” Speaking of the unionization effort, he said, “The motivation was the idea the newsroom would finally have a voice and say in how things operated. We wanted a microphone to speak to management and the public about how this place should operate.”

The Sun-Times, wholly unionized and now partially union-owned, weighed in, too. “A pro-union sentiment is washing over the American media in general, as well as a growing wariness of management, and it flows from a concern more profound than just a better paycheck. At the Tribune and elsewhere, it derives from a deep desire to maintain and protect professional standards,” its editorial said.

“This is a story, as well, that goes beyond newsrooms. It’s a story that goes to the heart of the desire of working people in most any field to maintain high professional standards. Not for nothing are both school janitors and university lecturers in Chicago threatening to strike. The frustration for reporters and editors at the Tribune and elsewhere has been in seeing top executives pay themselves millions of dollars while their newsroom colleagues are laid off.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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