News Guild steps up militancy in battles against hedge funds and AI outsourcing
Editorial members of the Austin 'American-Statesman's' Austin NewsGuild picket along the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, Texas, June 5, 2023. The one-day strike aimed to protest the company's leadership and cost-cutting measures imposed since its 2019 merger with GateHouse Media. | Eric Gay / AP

ST. LOUIS—Faced with threats to their jobs, including a 57% decline in U.S. journalists’ numbers since 2004, The News Guild has produced 15% growth in the last three years and more militancy in defense of both its members and reporting the news.

And that’s going to continue as new infusions of younger workers enter the industry, TNG President Jon Schleuss predicts.

The militancy resulted in more than 20 strikes of one day or longer last year and 27 so far this year, including an ongoing forced strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which has lasted nine months and counting, and coordinated shorter one- and two-day strikes at Gannett papers.

Key issues in the Pittsburgh campaign are no pay raises for more than a decade—and none proposed—by the ruling Block brothers’ combo, unilateral downgrading of health insurance followed by its withdrawal when the workers were forced to walk, and scads of labor law-breaking convictions of the duo and their hired union-buster, which the Blocks ignore.

The Pittsburgh struggle is one of three “open-ended” strikes bosses forced the Guild to undertake, said Stephanie Basile, who oversees contracts for the union. It won the other two, at The Insider and in a breakthrough contract in Texas at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Militancy also led The News Guild to look outside its own journalism sector for workers to organize. The top targets have been in non-profit progressive organizations whose bosses believe they can take advantage of workers’ idealism to foist low pay and lousy working conditions on them.

Thus the St. Louis-based United Media Guild, which used to be the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, now also represents workers in the ACLU in Kansas and Missouri and the Workers Interfaith Network, for example.

“Some 15%-20% of our members are now at non-profits, including at the AFL-CIO,” said Schleuss. Its staff is a top unit in the rapidly growing Washington-Baltimore News Guild.

Nevertheless, the largest units organized in the last 18 months were in media, led by the New York News Guild’s win at the 603-worker engineering and tech unit—i.e. the website and allied enterprises—at The New York Times. The second-largest was WBNG’s win at 255-person Politico.

But the militancy also comes as younger workers enter journalism following the accelerating retirement of the “Baby Boom” generation from the nation’s newsrooms.

Like Schleuss, younger workers are more internet and social media savvy. And, like younger workers in other jobs—Amazon workers, fast food workers, port truckers, adjunct professors, farm workers, nurses, teachers—they’re far more willing to confront bosses and demand respect and union recognition on the job. And to use those tools to avoid bosses’ blockading tactics.

The militancy will be needed as the union, whose convention, officially called a sector conference, met July 7-8 in St. Louis. TNG is now a Communications Worker sector and CWA’s convention is taking place there, too, from July 10-12.

That’s because in addition to the internet’s destruction of newspapers’ ad revenues, one threat—Wall Street—has been devouring papers for the last decade. And another, artificial intelligence, is on the horizon.

Alden Global Capital symbolizes the hedge fund monster. It has a reputation for swooping in, buying distressed regional and local papers, firing more than half the staff, eliminating coverage and accountability of state and local governments and the corporate class, selling buildings, then shutting papers, pocketing the profits, and leaving shattered families and news deserts in its wake.

But Alden’s not the only one, as Schleuss noted. And the Lee newspaper chain—whose lead paper is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—beat Alden off, with the (St. Louis) News Media Guild’s help.

Wall Street is why TNG and another CWA sector, the Broadcast Employees and Technicians, led a successful fight to get the Federal Communications Commission to kill Standard General’s planned $8.6 billion takeover of Tegna, Gannett’s chain of local TV stations.

That doesn’t mean the 90-year-old Guild is ignoring its original industry. Far from it. After all, as Basile asked delegates, “How many chains care about workers and communities? These companies are full of money, yet they claim they don’t want to pay our workers.”

But publishers now have found a new threat, one that another creative workers’ union, the Writers Guild of America, also faces: Artificial intelligence. In so many words, publishers, like their counterparts at movie studios, TV production companies, Netflix, and streaming services, are looking to replace people with computer-generated news and entertainment.

AI “is software analyzing large sets of data, looking for different connections and finding different patterns,” explained Schleuss, who helped organize the rabidly anti-union Los Angeles Times. He was “a data and graphics journalist, writing and telling innovative stories using computer programming,” his bio says.

“On ChatGBT, they (publishers) will see it (AI) as a way to replace actual human beings,” he told the delegates. The catch is that without humans, AI can be easily misled, fed misinformation and outright lies, or both. “If there’s a buck to be made by passing on information, that’s what they”—the platforms and publishers “will do,” added New York News Guild President Susan DeCarava.

“This is a problem, but it can also be a tool. But you should check the source material for anything you get from AI,” he warned.

“But when you’re at the bargaining table, ask the company ‘What’s your intent with AI?’ Will it impact discipline or writer contract terms” among other uses? “You need to know the pitfalls” of AI and its use of algorithms to promote some data and information and downplay or eliminate others.

The Guild is also fighting for relief from both Congress and in the states by laws mandating the Big Tech companies—Google and the like—pay for the news content they routinely rip off from newspapers and post. Both the union and publishers agree on that goal. They differ on who would benefit.

The publishers want all those funds to go into their pockets, and not into the pockets of the workers who actually write and edit the stories and the news—and check it for accuracy. So the Guild, while supporting the goal of ending the web’s free ride on its journalism, wants to condition 70% of any new revenues from such payments going into newsroom salaries, upgrades, hiring, and benefits for the workers who actually write the news.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.