Guild fights union-busting by media giant

OAKLAND, Calif. — The national media chain that now owns nearly all daily newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area said Aug. 13 it was withdrawing recognition of the union representing newsroom employees.

Media advocates see it as part of a national epidemic of media mergers that make working journalists and editorial staff their first targets, and threaten “key elements in our democracy.”

The move drew immediate fire from the Northern California Media Guild. Guild representative Carl Hall said workers are determined to fight for their union.

William Dean Singleton’s Denver-based MediaNews Group, which owns the Alameda News Group including papers in Oakland, Hayward, Fremont and other communities, last year bought the Contra Costa Newspapers, including the Walnut Creek-based Contra Costa Times.

The 11 papers in the newly merged Bay Area News Group-East Bay (BANG-EB) will still be published separately, but will pool many editorial functions.

Near the end of a long e-mail, BANG-EB Publisher John Armstrong told workers at the new entity that since unorganized editorial staff are now the majority, “we withdrew recognition from the Guild effective today.”

Some 130 union-represented Alameda News Group editorial workers are part of the merger, along with 170 from the nonunion Contra Costa papers. Alameda News Group workers signed their first contract in 1998, after a decade-long struggle to win union recognition. The Contra Costa Newspapers have historically been nonunion.

Workers at the San Jose Mercury News, also recently bought by MediaNews, are represented by another Guild local and covered by a different contract. They are not included in the decertification attempt.

The Guild has protested to the National Labor Relations Board, which took testimony in the case early last week.

“We’re in the midst of a number of steps” to fight back against BANG’s attempt to eliminate the union, Guild representative Carl Hall said in a telephone interview. “We’re going to use all appropriate options: public outreach, organizing the unorganized, legal efforts.”

Hall, a reporter on leave from the San Francisco Chronicle (not owned by MediaNews), said workers at the unionized BANG papers are determined to fight to keep their union, and have put forward the slogan, “One Big BANG, One Guild Universe!”

“We’re in touch with workers at the Contra Costa Times and other BANG newspapers who want union representation, and we will support them,” he added.

In the epidemic of media mergers, “the people squeezed the hardest are working journalists,” Craig Aaron, communications director with the media policy organization Free Press, told the World. “Time and time again, the first people cut are the people in the newsrooms, while foreign and local bureaus are closed,” he said. “Those who are left must do more stories with less resources.”

Aaron said “tens of thousands” of journalists nationwide have lost their jobs in the consolidations.

Calling newspapers “key elements in our democracy,” Aaron emphasized that they “are not just any business.” While local newspapers have generally continued to make good profits, he said, they face continued pressure from Wall St. to make bigger gains each year.

MediaNews Group, the fourth largest U.S. newspaper company, owns 57 daily newspapers in 12 states.

Since last December the Mercury News has suffered 66 newsroom layoffs. After 31 workers were laid off last month, San Jose Newspaper Guild Executive Officer Luther Jackson said on the union web site that besides the “major blow” to workers and their families, “readers will also quickly feel the loss of such a talented and dedicated group of newspaper professionals.”

Workers at the St. Paul, Minn., Pioneer Press were greeted last month with a long list of MediaNews contract proposals including a two-tier wage system, cuts in sick and disability time, an end to daily overtime, and management rights to set and change schedules, rules and assignments without Guild involvement.

MediaNews workers have won some, too. Last fall employees at the York, Pa., Daily Record and York Dispatch Sunday News won a settlement with MediaNews over a long list of unfair labor practices charges they had filed with the NLRB.

mbechtel @pww.org