Tag Archives: unions

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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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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Filed under Family, News and Commentary, Raw Material for a Memoir

A Glimpse Into One Effort to Make Work Work for Workers

Into a megaphone held by New York Taxi Workers Alliance director Bhairavi Desai, Jamil Hussain, yelled, “End the isolation! Taxi drivers unite!”

The president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, opened the passenger front door of the taxi at the curb outside Queens Medallion in Long Island City, Queens.

Long Island City is the neighborhood that houses the taxi industry. Queens Medallion leases the second-largest number of taxi medallions in the city. Medallions are the permits required for cabbies to pick up street hails in New York City. Every one of the roughly 45,000 taxi drivers in that city must have one every day on the job, but they cost something like $30,000 apiece.

Trumka had come here, and I was with him, because New York’s independent cab drivers, who have been organizing for years, have put things into a higher gear. Since December, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance has held more than 50 demonstrations against the companies with the highest medallion and car lease rates and fees. The Taxi Workers also received the first new national organizing charter from the AFL-CIO in more than 60 years. The new organization is called the National Taxi Workers Alliance. The Taxi Workers needed Trumka’s help. He jumped out of the taxi and into a light rain. I handed him his suit coat.

Speakers wired and bolted to the outside walls of Queens Medallion blasted rock music over the heads of about 40 taxi drivers, who chanted and shouted on the sidewalk. TV cameras recorded the scene from beneath umbrellas held by reporters, who also struggled to take notes at the same time.

“They think they can drown out the truth with those speakers.” said Bhairavi Desai, the director of NYTWA and the NTWA.

Then Desai, who stands about five feet tall and has an amazing ability to sum up the injustices of the taxi trade, began to shout into a megaphone to shame the managers of Queens Medallion, who stood stone-faced by the open door of the building’s garage just a few yards away.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, right, tells the taxi workers that they’re organizing for what workers want everywhere–fair pay, decent benefits and a chance to work hard and get ahead.

“The brokers don’t own the drivers,” Desai hollered. “You don’t have to pay personnel or expenses. It’s all gravy for you. But we’ve had enough! We’re sick of the lies! We’re sick of the exploitation! Shame! Shame! Take notice! Your days over thievery and exploitation are coming to an end!”

Then Trumka, who wore a dark suit and tie, took the megaphone.

“I bring the greetings of 12 million workers in the AFL-CIO. They do everything to make this country run, just like you make this city run. God bless you for it,” he said. He drew parallels between the taxi workers and the plight of working people all across America. The taxi workers shoulder all the risk of rising gas prices and slow business. Credit card fees from the garages eat 5 percent of every transaction. It’s a whole system rigged for the owners, he said.

“This reminds me of the United Mine Workers,” said Trumka, who started in the labor movement as a coal miner in western Pennsylvania, just like his father and grandfather. “They made us pay for our tools. We only got paid for the coal we dug out of the ground, and they cheated us on that, too. But with our union, we changed those jobs into good jobs.”

The taxi workers cheered.

After about 15 minutes in front of Queens Medallion, the whole group walked down the street and around the corner to another garage, this one called SJS Jet. After more speeches and more chanting, the march continued to a third business, called Midtown Operating Corp.

Under the green girders of an elevated train track, the marchers chanted, “Lower the lease!”

The rain continued to drizzle. Low clouds obscured the tops of buildings. It was time for the afternoon shift change, so yellow taxis cruised in and out of the lot. Many of the drivers waved and honked. Two drivers left the queue in line for cabs and walked across the driveway, directly in front of the owners of Midtown. The drivers joined the march, turned around and shouted, “Shame! Shame!”

Many of the drivers said the managers at Midtown routinely refused to accept payment from some drivers at the start of the shift, and then penalized those same drivers with a $25 late fee later in the day.

“We’re your union! Taxi drivers unite!” hollered someone into the megaphone.

“Divided we beg! United we win!” yelled Desai in her clear voice. “We’ll be back!”

A few minutes later, the marchers began to disperse, so the drivers could work for a few more hours before the end of the day. Trumka patted his pockets but couldn’t find his reading glasses. He checked the taxi we had been in, to no avail. He asked me if I had noticed them in his suit jacket when I handed it to him. I had a sinking feeling that I had. One of the drivers, a Bengali immigrant named Jamil Hussain, jogged back along our marching route to Queens Medallion with me. Sure enough, the glasses—bent and scratched—lay there at the graveled base of a sapling in the sidewalk. Mortified, I picked them up, and we jogged back.

Gamely, Trumka sat in the taxi. He bent his glasses back more or less into shape and dried the lenses on his shirt.

“I’m sure I dropped them. I’m sorry I’m so damn clumsy,” I said. I felt terrible.

“It’s my fault. You didn’t know they were in the pocket. I should have said something,” he said. He put the glasses on his face. “They’re scratched, but they’ll do.”

The taxi pulled away from the curb and headed toward Manhattan to the first fundraiser of the National Taxi Workers Alliance. You can read more about the taxi workers forming a union on the website of the AFL-CIO here.

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Don’t Blame the Rich. Make Them Pay.

It’s Superbowl Sunday. In a few moments, I’m going to light charcoal in the smoker in my backyard, and the rest of the day will be all about hanging out with my spouse and my son and daughter… while a pile of wild goose breasts covered with bacon slowly cook to perfection in the smoker….

So why do I feel compelled to toss another argument into the ether? I honestly have no idea, and I’m violating all the basic rules of blogging. I’m about to comment on something ancient—a week old—and I have no intention of turning my personal blog into a place to comment on issues of the day, so don’t come back often for more of this type of fare….

And yet, the lead opinion piece in the Washington Post last weekend was so ridiculous, so deeply and profoundly stupid, that I feel compelled to point it out.

I’ll begin with the basic premise behind the title, “Angry about inequality? Don’t blame the rich.”

Those two phrases paint a picture of petulant and lazy poor people, maybe all standing in line at the bus stop, who point an accusatory finger at a smart-looking couple driving to work in a comfortable car with leather seats.

The column says: If you were better educated, more disciplined and creative, you could have a nice car, too, you slob.

The piece then takes the reader down a narrow and illogical path, painfully avoiding honest analysis by silently re-defining the “rich” away from the truly wealthy and toward the educated middle class and repackaging a pile of old “blame the poor for poverty” yarns.

But I don’t “blame the successful.” And you shouldn’t either.

Yes, it’s true that the super-rich and corporations have rigged our nation to squeeze every possible dollar from the rest of us, both from our wages and where we spend our money. Yes, it’s true that the rich love corruption and hate a truly free democracy…. If you’ll notice, all of the “freedoms” loved by the truly rich invariably restrict the freedoms of the rest of us.

But we let them do it…. We let them pit us against each other! We let them trick us with cheap credit and the promises of the rewards of deregulation! We let them fool us into thinking that we could cut our taxes to increase our wealth, when the opposite is true! We let them target our rights and freedoms in the workplace!

That’s why the imbalance in our country has reached such severe proportions. It’s that simple. We let them off the hook, and we took on every burden ourselves.

So, no, don’t blame the rich.

We don’t have the time, really, for a bunch of finger-pointing. We need to rebuild our country, and for that we need cash. Let’s raise the money by making everyone in America pay fairly.

As our president said, it’s not a matter of blame. It’s simple math.

We’re not a bunch of lazy slobs in a bus line, pointing at the smart people and complaining.

We’re hard-working people who have been giving the lion’s share of our earnings to a bunch of over-sensitive prima donnas, and it’s time we stopped.

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