Union tremor shakes Bay Area print media

Pro-union vote in eastern region of SF Bay

Editorial employees at seven newspapers in the San Francisco East Bay voted 104-92 to certify the Newspaper Guild as their bargaining agent with MediaNews Group. The San Francisco Chronicle and the MediaNews papers wrote short articles (see Chron or the Hayward Daily Review) devoid of analysis.

I am a Chronicle staff reporter who supports the organizing drive out of self interest, if nothing else. MediaNews is a debt-leveraged newspaper chain built by Dean Singleton. MediaNews got a loan from Hearst to acquire the East Bay papers from McClatchy, the newspaper firm which bought out Knight-Ridder. MediaNews recently refinanced its debt to eliminate reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which will allow it to operate more privately and without disclosures of margins or other factors.

Hearst Corp. and MediaNews have business relationships that complicate the notion of competition between them. As Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition write two years ago:

Hearst, owner of the Chronicle, which will be MediaNews’ primary competitor in the Bay Area . . . Hearst will also become a MediaNews investor and partner . . . Regulators are suspicious whenever they see ostensible competitors engaging in transactions that could cause them to be less competitive with each other—or, worse, that could facilitate an agreement to fix prices or divide up the market.

For sheer balance of power reasons it behooves editorial employees on both sides of San Francisco Bay to have whatever (diminishing) clout comes from spreading the union on both sides of the Bay. But the margin of the vote is not overwhelming. It suggests that MediaNews workers wonder whether a union will do anything more than piss off the bosses and cost more than $500 a year in without preventing the implosion of the newspaper industry.

All valid objections. Nevertheless being represented will make a difference in how we do journalism in this period of retreat. Let’s look at staffing numbers. In 2000, when the staffs of the Chronicle and Examiner were merged, they totaled about 550 reporters. I am now one of about 300 surviving Chronicle journalists.

Across the Bay, the seven papers affected by the union vote employ about 225 journalists. So the Chronicle alone had a bigger editorial staff in 2000 than the combined headcount of the the seven MediaNews papers plus the Chron.The other big regional paper is the San Jose Mercury News. It is owned by MediaNews and is already unionized by the Guild. It now has about 170 persons on staff. I believe its staff peaked around 400 persons during the dot.com era.

Newspaper editorial staffs have been cut more or less in half in the last several years. How do shrinking staffs cover the region? How much say does the staff have in making decisions? That is as much at stake in the union vote as the hourly rate or the number of vacation days. As a union member I have the rarely exercised but important prerogative of taking my byline off a story. That allows me some final say over the journalism that goes out under my name. How much is that worth? And can the union even get a deal from MediaNews?

I don’t know but I am a survivor of the 1994 newspaper strike. I had only been in newspapers 2 years. People understand these jobs are tough to get and I was not happy about the walkout nor altogether behind the union position (for instance at that point the Guild opposed putting cameras into the hands of reporters; I thought that foolish). But we got back in the door and with a decent contract.

But before that strike settled, management was on the verge of bringing in replacement workers supplied by the Chicago Tribune. So I was told by a former management executive, The Trib, then under different ownership, was prepared to send in squads of out-of-town journalists to replace the striking locals.

That never happened. But with the financial relationship between Hearst and MediaNews already, I think reporters on either side of the San Francisco Bay could one day be told to work as strike breakers. Or maybe they never get to make a choice. They are told: write a story about X, Y or Z — never leave their desk, never cross a picket line and by a management edict their work appear in a supposedly competing paper.

What a world! What could a union do? The question to ask, I think, is what would management do in the absence of any check on its power?