Chicago Reader staff votes to unionize, seeking ‘stronger voice’ in outlet’s future

Alt-weekly is the third Windy City newsroom to join a union in the last 13 months

CHICAGO — Employees of the Chicago Reader, the city’s premier alt-weekly, voted unanimously Friday to join the Chicago Newspaper Guild, becoming the third Chicago newsroom to unionize in 13 months.

Mick Dumke, the paper’s senior writer and one of the organizers behind today’s vote, says the decision to join the union stems from the desire to have “a stronger voice in the future of the publication.” That’s particularly crucial, he says, ever since the 43-year-old weekly was bought in 2012 by Wrapports LLC—a venture formed in 2011 to purchase the Sun-Times Media Group, which had owned the Chicago Sun-Times and more than 40 suburban titles.

“The reason the staff rallied around this idea is that the Reader’s been bought and become part of a much larger company. Everybody agrees that it’s important for us to come together and ensure that we have a collective voice in what’s going on,” Dumke said. (Disclosure: Dumke and I worked together more than 10 years ago at The Chicago Reporter.)

The Reader’s move follows similar efforts at Chicago Public Media, which voted to unionize in December 2013, and the Chicago-based In These Times magazine, which joined the Communications Workers of America in February 2014 and signed off on a union contract in October.

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Dave Pollard, president of the Guild, says the flurry of interest in organizing newsrooms reflects the increasing sense of “necessity” among journalists. “In the past, they didn’t necessarily see the need for organizing, but they got a wake-up call in the last few years,” Pollard says. “They realized that they need to come together and organize—to fight and at least stay where they are at.”

The relationship between Wrapports and the Guild, which also represents Sun-Times employees, has at times been contentious. In May 2013, the Sun-Times made national headlines when it decided to lay off its entire photography staff—28 employees in all, including 17 union members—without bargaining with the Guild over the move.

Then, in 2014, came word that reporters at a chain of suburban papers then owned by the company had been ordered to meet a byline quota or face disciplinary action. That led the Guild to file a grievance and send a cease-and-desist letter; according to media writer Robert Feder, a company official replied that the quota was “a reasonable response to our changing landscape [that is] embraced by just about every other news organization around the globe.”

And, late last year, Wrapports came under intense scrutiny when Dave McKinney, then-chief of the Sun-Times’ Springfield bureau, resigned in protest against alleged interference by the company’s leadership on his reporting. McKinney had reported on the past business practices of Bruce Rauner, the eventual winner of Illinois’ gubernatorial race—who happened to be one of the investors who originally teamed up with Michael Ferro Jr., Wrapport’s chairman, to launch the company. The Guild began an online petition to “support a newsroom free of political interference” and got about 500 people to sign it.

A Wrapports official declined CJR’s request for comment, but CEO Tim Knight released a statement to the Reader’s Michael Miner: “We appreciate that staff exercised their right to vote and acknowledge the decision.”

Rebecca Burns, assistant editor at In These Times, said that the Reader’s move comes at the time when unions across the country are tweaking their approach to organizing in the media industry.*

“There’s some refocusing within groups working on organizing [journalists] … to adapt to the shifting landscape—to organize freelancers, think about the roles that interns are playing, and bring all those people into the movement,” said Burns, who led her newsroom’s unionizing effort. “That way, you have a better shot at actually winning things at the bargaining table.”

At In These Times, where the editorial ethos is unabashedly pro-union, the labor vote was followed by smooth negotiations. Burns and her colleagues reached an agreement with management within a few months on the basic terms of the contract: broader staff participation in shaping the magazine’s direction and priorities, as well as an annual raise of 3 percent. (By contrast, the Chicago Public Media employees, who voted to unionize two months earlier, are still negotiating on the terms of their contract.)

But union organizers acknowledge that larger forces in the economy are often beyond their control. “We can’t stop layoffs from happening,” says Beth Kramer, coordinator of the Guild’s Working Journalists unit, which was started last year to organize freelancers. “But the point of the union is to protect the workers and their rights, so we can at least try to help people who are laid off to get things like severance pay.”

That’s how it went when the photo desk was eliminated at the Sun-Times. The Guild took the issue to the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the company could not eliminate the entire job class without first bargaining with the union. It eventually led to a concession: four of the 17 laid-off photo staff were rehired, and the rest received cash settlements.

* Correction: This sentence originally misstated Rebecca Burns’ title at In These Times.

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Rui Kaneya is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya.