Tag Archives: Montana Newspaper Guild

Three Words Behind the Gawker Union: What About Us?

“What about us?” was what Gawker reporter Hamilton Nolan asked as he wrote about talk of Vice workers forming a union. Nolan’s beat is work and jobs, but the subject resonated with him at his job.

What followed came fast. Nolan spoke with Justin Molito of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), who talked him through the nuts-and-bolts of organizing a union.

Nolan and others at Gawker didn’t wait for the full old-school process, though. The next thing Molito knew, Nolan and others had posted a meeting invitation on Facebook. Forty people came. The next morning a bunch of Gawker writers were posting about their desire for a union.

“This is something we waged publicly, because that’s how Gaw

From left to right at the table: Freddy Kunkle of the Washington Post talked about organizing among skeptical media workers while NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Hamilton Nolan of Gawker look listen.

From left to right at the table: Freddy Kunkle of the Washington Post talked about organizing among skeptical media workers while NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Hamilton Nolan of Gawker look listen.

ker operates,” Nolan said. Then something rare happened. Instead of resisting the idea, Gawker CEO Nick Denton agreed to a private ballot vote. On June 4, about 120 Gawker workers voted to unionize by a margin of 3-1.

This Wednesday afternoon, Nolan and Molito joined NewsGuild-CWA organizing director Tim Schick and Freddy Kunkle, co-chair of the Washington Post unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild for a discussion on at the AFL-CIO on organizing in digital media. The News Guild has been organizing in new media for 20 years and counts about 2,000 new media members.

Gawker workers wanted to publish at every step along the way, beginning with an early position piece on why workers there wanted to organize. That openness continued with a public discussion of how people planned to vote and why.

“It can almost be a tutorial for organizing,” Nolan said.

He’s not kidding. The discussion is frank, and even raw at times. The workers literally wrestle out issues in real time.

“If new media industry is going to grow up—and it is growing up—we need to do this,” he said.

If you’re interested in organizing at your workplace, please take this survey. Or you can simply email me. I’m a member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.


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Want to be Like Gawker?

Over the past few weeks, workers at Gawker in New York City voted to form a union and now the staff of Salon seems set to follow suit.

By using our collective voice, staff members at media companies can negotiate with our employers for fair pay and benefits.

What I’m trying to say is this: You work hard. You produce value. That’s true, whatever your particular job happens to be. Together, we can win some of that value and transform jobs into careers. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen without some effort. But it’s doable, and it’s worth it.

With this blog post, I want to begin to gauge interest among media workers in the greater-DC area for organizing.

If “media worker in the greater-DC area” describes you (more or less), please take this short survey. If you’re interested in reading sample contracts, click this link. If you want to interact with someone, feel free to email me.

I’m a member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, and my union wants to help you organize. Workers at the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, Bloomberg’s Bureau of National Affairs and quite a few smaller organizations are part of this union local. We’d love to talk to you about joining us.

Please take the survey. I’ll leave the survey open for several weeks, and then I’ll post the results. Check back at this URL, if you’d like more information.

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On Strike! The Montana Newspaper Guild in 1974

“We managed to get a pension…. What’s the pension situation like at newspapers now?”

Carla Beck, a former president of the Montana Newspaper Guild and a reporter at the Great Falls Tribune in the 1960s and 70s, posed the question to me about halfway through our telephone conversation, and it put the divide between past expectations and modern reality into sharp relief.

I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing!

“What? No daily reporters in Montana have pensions! Lee Enterprises doesn’t even contribute matching dollars to 401Ks!” I said, adding, “I don’t know about Gannett.”

Gannett owns the Great Falls Tribune, where employees had been members of the Local 81 of the National Newspaper Guild from the mid-1930s to 1993. Lee Enterprises owns all but one of Montana’s daily newspapers—the Billings Gazette, the Montana Standard in Butte, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian and the Ravalli Republic south of Missoula. I worked at both the Gazette and the Missoulian over the years as a reporter. I also delivered the Gazette as a teenager, and I helped my mom deliver the Missoulian sometimes back when I was in grade school.

Here’s something you have to understand: Lee Enterprises, based in Iowa, is an anti-union media company, by which I mean that the company’s policies include instructing managers to break the law by intimidating or firing any employees who try to form a union. Maybe that’s not surprising, but it should be.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I called Beck after I got a letter from Ralph Pomnichowski (another past president of Local 81) with her phone number. He had read this blog about union talk among some Montana journalists and thought I should talk to her. (It turns out that she doesn’t live far from me in Maryland. It’s a small world….)

I wanted to talk to her about the unsuccessful 1974 strike at the Great Falls Tribune.

By way of background, you should know that the Great Falls Tribune, like most newspapers, produced (and continues to produce) tremendous profits. It was the largest newspaper in Montana and was available everywhere in the state. The employees wanted fair compensation for the people who made the company so profitably, especially the workers in the classified advertising department.

“Those little ads made, oh my… you wouldn’t believe how profitable those ads were,” Beck said. “We wanted more for those people who pulled in so much money for the newspaper.”

At that time, Local 81 felt strong, partly because it represented workers throughout the newspaper, except the typesetters and the press workers. Plus, the teachers’ union in Great Falls had recently won a tough strike, and the solidarity within the Great Falls labor movement was complete. People would flock to picket lines in support of other unions. So when the Guild went to the table to bargain a contract with the Tribune’s owners, and the owners refused to even talk about decent raises, the members voted to strike.

“Here’s what I’ve thought about a lot since that strike. All of us should have been a little scared,” Beck said. “We didn’t know what all that would be required. We should have known, because we were all basically researchers. I’m not apologizing, but when you go into a strike situation you need to educate your members so that they know what it’s really about.”

Carla Beck in 1971, photo courtesy of the Newspaper Guild.

Beck explained that the workers at the paper figured that a short-term loss of a paycheck would be made up by good increases, and that the newspaper company would be anxious to keep making money.

You see, when Local 81 went on strike, the Great Falls Tribune couldn’t put out a paper. Instead, the employees wrote, laid out and printed a weekly strike paper called the Great Falls Pennant from the strike headquarters, which were on the second floor of a bar across the street from the Tribune’s offices.

But the company that owned the Tribune, which also owned the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, replaced the old hot-lead typesetting machinery in the printing plant with new technology that needed a fraction of the workers. Plus, the company had plenty of cash from its other holdings, but the employees—especially the lower-paid workers in the classified department—felt tremendous pressure from the lack of that paycheck.

The enthusiasm that marked the early weeks of the strike began to wane. After a few months, some members began to cross the picket line and return to work.

Truck drivers, teachers, heavy-equipment operators, electricians and others marched on the picket line alongside striking newspaper workers at the Great Falls Newspapers Strike in 1974. Photo courtesy of the Newspaper Guild.

“Management knew what they wanted to accomplish, and they had the money to do it,” she said. “They wanted to break the Guild.”

It’s easy to understand why the corporate owners of Montana’s newspapers wanted to undermine the workers. Union workers in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s had negotiated good benefits and pay, and non-union companies like Lee had been obliged to offer comparably decent packages to forestall organizing drives.

In retrospect, the 1974 strike was the beginning of the end of the Montana Newspaper Guild, Beck told me, and that was especially true after Gannett bought the paper, “because they’re a union-buster all around,” she said.

The Guild continued to represent employees at the paper until 1993, when workers voted to disband as a union. Yet the Guild continued to have a strong positive effect on wages and benefits of journalists in Montana until 1993, and even for a few years afterwards.

By then, Carla Beck had long since moved on. She came to the DC area to work for Montana Sen. John Melcher in the 1980s, and now she’s retired in Maryland, living with her husband, who worked for decades as an Episcopal minister.

“Unions are a lot like churches. A lot of the work is done by volunteers, who all have jobs and busy lives with all sorts of time constraints. Just think of what the world is operating under today! Good Lord!” she said.

I asked her if she had any advice for people who were interested in organizing media workers in Montana these days.

“I’d stress the care and feeding of members,” she said. “You can’t have a successful union without a strong community of members. We shut down that paper for weeks, for a couple months, and yet we still lost. The members lost heart. The other unions lost heart.”

Still, the Guild managed to establish a pension and upped the health care coverage.

“That was a real winner,” Beck said. That’s when she asked about journalists’ pensions today. It was a subject on which we lingered for a moment, because neither of us have a doubt that Montana’s newspapers still produce incredible profits and could easily afford defined benefit pensions for retired employees.

Finally, Beck, who was a general assignment reporter, told me about some of her most memorable stories, one of which was a series in 1968 about how Alabama Gov. George Wallace had campaigned across Montana extensively as part of his presidential campaign.

“Oh, I tell you, he was up around the northeastern and north central part of the state. I interviewed all these people who told me the darnedest things, like what he can do and what he has done so well in Alabama, and, yes, quite frankly the racism would come out. The racism was there,” she said.

Then we talked about how Montana seems to have so many interesting political extremes, from socialist counties to right-wing separatists.

“That’s what makes the state such a wonderful place,” she said. “But maybe Montana’s not so different from anywhere else. I suspect that’s true all across the country.”

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The Return of the Montana Newspaper Guild

Steve Schnall in Great Falls in1983 pedaling to raise money for a Montana Newspaper Guild college scholarship, which happens to be named after my grandfather, also Robert Struckman. Steve is now assistant athletic director at San Diego State University in California.

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.

Both of these photos come from the files of the Newspaper Guild here in Washington. I’d appreciate any news about the photographs or the people in them. Feel free to email.


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