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.

Bernie Lunzer, president of the guild, sees the union’s role as evolving in a more cooperative direction. The guild wants both training and “legitimate input into what the products are going forward,” Lunzer says. But management has been slow to capitalize on the expertise of “frontline workers,” he says, and has been “stuck in their hierarchies and old-world management systems.” As managers focus on cutting costs, it’s increasingly left to workers to point out what’s being lost.

Preserving quality was a rallying cry this summer at The Baltimore Sun, the lone guild paper in Tribune, where sixty newsroom jobs (and a hundred companywide) were eliminated. The departures were mourned at a July union protest in front of the newspaper that featured one hundred black chairs with pink slips attached to them and chants of “Sell, Zell.” For Lynn Anderson, a forty-year-old former Sun reporter who co-chaired the Baltimore guild unit, the protest was an emotional high-water mark. “We were sad,” she says, “but making a public statement together made us feel strong. For that hour, I think we felt very determined. And I think that determination has carried over.”

Anderson, though, decided she had had enough. She took a buyout and signed on with a public-relations firm. “This is a window where a lot of journalists are saying, ‘We’ve got to get out of the industry for a while,’ ” she says. “This is the first time I’ve seen people under thirty taking a buyout.”

In Philadelphia, after two contentious years, there were signs of a tentative, and perhaps temporary, management-labor rapprochement. At the company’s request, the guild, along with a majority of the blue-collar unions, voted to defer the $25-a-week raises that were due to kick in September 1. Philadelphia Media Holdings, the private, debt-ridden company that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, still was planning to trim “as many as forty” guild members, says Diane Mastrull, an Inquirer reporter who chairs the Inquirer/Daily News bargaining unit. Those cuts were to flow mainly from the consolidation of the two papers’ copy desks and photo departments. But Mastrull says she told company officials that she “would not consider even going to our members and asking them to defer the raise if I was not assured that there would be management cuts.” She says she got a commitment for the dismissal of “up to fifteen managers” in the two newsrooms.

Mark Frisby, whose titles include executive vice president of Philadelphia Media Holdings and publisher of the Daily News, said in an interview that there was no explicit quid pro quo. But he says he did tell the guild that seventy-four “independents” (managers and supervisors) had been let go companywide over the past two years, and that such cuts would continue. With advertising revenues already down 18 percent this year, the exact number of management layoffs is “a moving target,” he says. Though the company plans to slash expenses by $50 million this year, Frisby says ominously, “we can’t take expenses out as quickly as the revenue is going away.”

The guild is optimistic that the payoff for playing nice this time around will be a voice in the company’s future. Says Mastrull: “I said to them, ‘It appears our members have better ideas than you guys have. We want to begin working with you to find ways we can come up with new products, better ways to grow revenue here, so we’re not constantly having to look at ways to just cut and cut and cut.’ ”

Frisby says he’s open to the guild’s ideas. But don’t look for the cuts—ongoing since at least the early 1990s, under Knight-Ridder—to stop anytime soon. The current contract expires next September, and Frisby says the company will be seeking yet “more efficiencies” in its next contract.

“If you look at the competition—Philadelphia Magazine, Philadelphia Weekly—any of those reporters are probably making twenty grand less than these reporters here,” says Frisby. “We’re working every day to make sure that the doors stay open. And, quite frankly, raises are pretty low on my list of priorities right now. The main focus is surviving during these tough economic times.”

Daily newspaper journalists may eagerly embrace new technologies and the multitasking that they require. They may seek accommodation with management or protest managerial incompetence, fight for unions or make do without them. But for the foreseeable future, they also need to accept the grim reality of their own declining economic clout. 

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