It’s an uncertain and insecure time for journalists in Montana these days, what with unrelenting layoffs and buyouts at the state’s newspapers coupled with more than a decade of below-inflation raises, when the staff received any pay increases at all. There have been furloughs at the Great Falls Tribune, and staff at the state’s five newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises have had significant benefit cutbacks, estimated by one staff member to equate to a 7 percent pay cut.
But here’s the funny part. Montana’s journalists have consistently produced top-quality news, year after year. The papers themselves have been beautifully profitable, earning dependable millions every year.
I can actually remember when pay stalled for Montana’s reporters. I was a bumbling and excited new police reporter at the Billings Gazette in 1998. As I got my first raise, my supervising editor explained that the paper’s corporate headquarters had clamped down on raises, just the previous year. Instead of good raises—I’m thinking maybe 5 percent or so—I would receive a fraction over 1 percent. It wasn’t me, my editor explained. It was company-wide.
It’s interesting to look back at that time.
Five years earlier, in 1993, the members of the Montana Newspaper Guild at the Great Falls Tribune—scattered among pretty much the entire staff outside the press room and the drivers—had voted out to disband. The Tribune had been an open shop for about 15 years, which means that employees could get the good wages and benefits that the dues-paying union members had bargained for, but without contributing a dime. Still, the members of the Montana Guild were skilled negotiators who won decent raises when the paper made solid profits.
Decades of research has shown that union wages raise standards at non-union workplaces. It’s easy to understand why. The Billings Gazette and other Lee Enterprises papers in Montana offered pay and benefits roughly comparable to the Great Falls Tribune, owned by the Gannett Company. Why? To retain and dissuade the staff from forming unions to gain the full benefits of collective bargaining.
If you don’t believe that Lee Enterprises fears the combined clout of its employees, consider this: Anti-union training is a centerpiece for all company managers, and anti-union videos are routine for new employees. I sat through an anti-union spiel at the Gazette in the summer of 1998. I remember it well. And, as I mentioned before, my editor didn’t hesitate when it came to breaking the law when he threatened to fire me just for talking about forming a union with my coworkers.
And here’s why Lee hates unions. It’s not rocket science. The company’s leadership doesn’t want any pressure to share any of the amazing profits it reaps. After the Tribune‘s union disbanded, Lee’s managers no longer even had to keep pace with the Tribune.
It’s abundantly clear to me now that while collective bargaining offers a rising tide, the reverse is also true. Without collective bargaining, employees experience a relentless race-to-the-bottom. It’s not a fun race, like that tricycle escapade above, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
And yet there is hope. As I’ve noted many times, Montana’s media corporations are profitable. News will also be important in Montana and across the country far into the future. In fact, media spending has been on the rise, even though the share spent on newspapers has been declining.
My point is simple. Newspaper employees—all media employees—from the press room to the advertising floor to the newsroom can still form unions. It’s possible. Membership in the Newspaper Guild doesn’t mean anything more than that each paper’s employees will be able to collectively bargain with management about pay, benefits and working conditions.
There are a lot of people in Montana who remember the Guild. I’ve been talking to quite a few of them. I’ll write soon about the 1974 strike in Great Falls, in which Teamsters, teachers, postal workers and even the young newspaper carriers helped Guild members in a long struggle with that paper’s management.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could form a union without taking an enormous personal and professional risk? Wouldn’t it be an amazing show of solidarity if those same truck drivers, mail carriers, teachers, electricians and public workers came together to help start a race back up from the bottom? The time is right.
And, actually, if anyone could identify the people in this photo, or share their stories, I’d sure appreciate it. More photos soon.