When her Contra Costa Times colleagues compared her union organizing efforts to those of Norma Rae, Sara Steffens rented the 1979 Martin Ritt film—and was disconcerted to discover that the feisty textile worker immortalized by Sally Field lost her job. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope that doesn’t mean I’m going to lose my job,’ ” Steffens said late last summer.

On June 13, editorial workers at the Bay Area News Group—East Bay, a group of nine MediaNews properties that includes the Contra Costa Times, voted to be represented by The Newspaper Guild—Communication Workers of America. It was the guild’s largest U.S. organizing win since the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel some two decades ago, according to Eric Geist, the union’s administrative director.

But victory came with a twist. Two weeks later, management announced a 13 percent reduction in the unionized workforce—and the thirty-six-year-old Steffens, an award-winning poverty and social-services reporter, was among the twenty-nine laid off.

The guild has filed an unfair-labor-practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of Steffens and two other laid-off reporters involved in the organizing drive. The company, not surprisingly, denies any wrongdoing. “The decision on the RIF [reduction in force] had nothing to do with the people—it was the positions that people held and the elimination of redundancies,” says Marshall Anstandig, a senior vice president and general counsel for MediaNews’s California News Group. Nor, says Anstandig, was Steffens specifically targeted. “Believe me, she’s not that important.”

Ouch.

Whatever the legal outcome, the Contra Costa case illustrates the rising frustration—for both labor and management—in today’s shrinking newsrooms. It also hints at the obstacles confronted by rank-and-file editorial employees fed up with cost cutting and the erosion of newspaper quality and eager for more constructive change.

Over the summer, protest was clearly in the air, notably at Sam Zell’s privately held Tribune Company. Massive job losses—135 in the Los Angeles Times newsroom alone—inspired satirical blogs such as Tell Zell and The Amazing Shrinking Orlando Sentinel, a protest rally at The Baltimore Sun, and an uptick of interest in unionization. In September, a group of former and current Los Angeles Times reporters filed a federal class action suit against Zell, claiming that he breached his fiduciary duty to employees in the Tribune’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan. Throughout the industry, workers have been arguing for a role in managing the transition to the digital age. But as job security evaporates and the economic status of journalists continues to deteriorate, will most of them stick around long enough for their voices to be heard?

For the moment, anyway, the anger in newsrooms is palpable. “Morons are now in charge of one of America’s great newspapers,” the anonymous Los Angeles Times employee who writes Tell Zell told me in an e-mail. The so-called InkStainedRetch has publicized newsroom organizing efforts by both the guild and the Teamsters. He also has started an online petition requesting the addition of an employee and a reader representative to the Tribune board of directors. But his main weapons are rant and ridicule, aimed at irritating Zell into selling the newspaper. “Every little thing counts, like sand grains in an oyster,” he says. “Not sure if that metaphor works, really, but the pearl comes when Sam Zell gets out.”

Meanwhile, Lesley Phillips, a guild organizer, has taken on what she calls the “formidable task” of trying to organize the Times newsroom. Once dubbed the “velvet coffin” for its high salaries and generous perks, the paper has been shaken by staff reductions and the departure of a string of editors and publishers. “All of a sudden,” says Phillips, “the velvet coffin wasn’t so comfortable anymore.”
About “seventeen or eighteen” Times staff members attended a union meeting in Los Angeles this summer, says the guild’s Eric Geist. Geist and Phillips made clear that a union contract would not necessarily prevent future job cuts. “That stops a lot of our organizing in its tracks,” Geist says. “People ask, ‘Why should I join the Newspaper Guild if you can’t stop the layoffs or the buyouts?’ ” Geist’s response is that the union, in addition to its traditional advocacy for better pay and benefits, can help companies adapt to the new world order.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a CJR contributing editor.