The LA Times flirts with unionization, defying its history

Union signs adorn the newsroom. Photo by Matt Pearce, via Twitter.

The successful formation of a union at the Los Angeles Times would have been largely unimaginable in the last century.

From 1960 to 1980, the Times was a totem of West Coast journalism that had been built up into a journalistic force by the aspirations of Otis Chandler, the golden boy heir to the one of the most powerful and most aggressively anti-union families in Southern California. The Times became a marquee newspaper during his time as publisher, and by and large his employees felt richly compensated not only in pay but prestige.

The end of the Chandler era wasn’t perfect, but the paper’s staff earned a certain swagger during his tenure. With bureaus around the world and an eye to national dominance, the major metropolitan newspaper’s reporters traveled first-class, and pay was competitive enough to lure ace reporters and top editors from East Coast institutions. The newsroom felt like it was closing in on the competition—which they saw as The New York Times, to the exclusion of any other paper. The newspaper even had a Picasso collection.

The broadly accepted company line was: Who needed a union when success was so abundant and available to the rank-and-file?

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When the Chandler family sold the paper to Tribune (now known as Tronc) in 2000, the newspaper earned $200 million a year in profit, before its pages and staff fell prey to the endless cuts and carvings of bean counters in Chicago, and then in 2007 became the plaything of foul-mouthed blowhard Sam Zell. Then came the industry-wide nosedive of ad revenue, the slow-to-adapt business model of newspapers in general, and the questionable business decisions of a panicked management team. The intervening years, and their waves of buyouts and layoffs, signaled the end of the days when the looming, Art Deco building in downtown Los Angeles could be dubbed a de facto mausoleum, for all its “velvet coffin” jobs. The staff now numbers fewer than 500, down from a peak of 1,200, and there are rumblings about more cuts to come amid yet another management shakeup. Earlier this year, Tronc unexpectedly fired the newspaper’s top editors including Davan Maharaj, the publisher—installing Ross Levinsohn, a veteran of Fox and Yahoo, as publisher, and former Forbes Editor Lewis D’Vorkin, as editor.

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The resulting uncertainty is fueling  a union effort that may finally prevail in transforming one of the nation’s largest non-union newsrooms. There are currently labor unions at The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and non-newspaper outlets such as Vice and The Associated Press. A Tronc spokeswoman declined an interview request to speak with D’Vorkin or anyone else at the LA Times for this story.

Current and former LA Times staffers tell CJR the newsroom’s hopes to join NewsGuild-CWA turn on a desire to maintain a semblance of what it has long meant to be employed by the Los Angeles Times. Some former staffers recall the halcyon days when the paper was fat, brimming with copy that kept government and industry accountable. Others left for better opportunities and lament the Times’ wasted potential. Every interviewee told CJR a union was a good idea, though some consider it a last resort. Employees have yet to file for unionization with federal officials, but dozens of newsroom employees went public as the face of the union drive in late October. They are calling for fairness in wages, job protections, the first across-the-board raises in seven years—and they’re openly critical of a persistently white and male masthead. For young women, people of color, and other diverse newsroom members, it’s difficult to see a rosy future, not only for themselves, but the Times itself as a critical source of news in a city as diverse as Los Angeles.

The Times’ interim executive editor, Jim Kirk, recently sent letters discouraging staffers from forming a union or sowing doubt the union can deliver on its promises, writing in one: “We can say with certainty that if the union is voted in, the company will bargain in good faith and will attempt to reach mutual agreement. However, it is important to remember that the union cannot provide any wages, benefits or working conditions to you without the company’s agreement.”

For all the demands for newsroom cuts, members of Tronc management are giving themselves huge raises. Executive pay ballooned by 80 percent from 2015 to 2016, to more than $19 million, according to data from Morningstar. By comparison, executives at The New York Times took a steep pay cut in the same period—from $26.3 million to $15.9 million—while running a bigger newspaper with a better reputation.

 

The present

Like many newsrooms, buyouts, firings, and departures for greener fields have harmed morale at the LA Times. What keeps talent is the promise of progress, but it’s hard to have faith when everyone on the newspaper’s current leadership team is a stranger to the newsroom.

Current Tronc chairman Michael Ferro—a tech mogul with no newsroom experience—has been openly out of touch with any sort of journalistic reality, with promises of reporting by a yet-to-be-invented artificial intelligence solution (after years of cuts to the already-existing, natural variety) and 2,000 videos produced a day, an utterly insane figure if you ask anyone who has ever produced a video (and a questionable strategy at best). Even seemingly feasible promises haven’t been kept: Pledged new bureaus in Hong Kong, Seoul, Rio de Janiero, Lagos, and Moscow have yet to become realities.

“With Michael Ferro of Tronc taking over, they’re back into this new cycle of instability and things changing all the time—and they’ve bet their careers on working at the LA Times,” says Kevin Roderick, the founder, publisher and editor of LA Observed and a former Times reporter and editor who worked there for 25 years.

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For journalists concerned about their professional reputations, the tea leaves don’t read well with Tronc. “Tronc has not distinguished itself as any kind of news achiever,” says Roderick.  “They’re all about trying to find a way to monetize things and in this case it’s about experimenting with the LA Times—and that’s not what any reader of the LA Times is looking for.”

Among the signatories to the union’s open letter to the newsroom is National Correspondent Matt Pearce, who can’t imagine working most anyplace else—he loves the impact of being a Los Angeles Times reporter, and admires his boss and his coworkers. “But one of the things that I haven’t really liked about the Times is the low morale that has been pretty consistent for the past five years I’ve been here,” he tells CJR. “We’ve had five publishers in the five years I’ve been here, and a lot of turnover in the past five years.”

Every Times staffer CJR spoke with was pleased with what the Times has been able to produce despite cuts and chaos—many pointed to the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news during the San Bernardino mass-shooting.They want leaders who believe in journalism. They want to see support for strong reporting that serves a broad readership and the communities in Southern California.

They believe it’s possible because they’ve seen other phoenixes rise.

“You look at a place like The Washington Post which was in a similar position as the Los Angeles Times and you seeing what dynamic ownership and a dynamic editor can do to invigorate the newsroom,” Pearce says, referring to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and (former LA Times editor) Editor in Chief Marty Baron.

Pearce also points to the newsroom’s class of diverse young reporters who are equipped to report on many cultures in Los Angeles, but have felt undervalued when it comes to advancement and opportunity, a “kind of invisible barrier with younger reporters of color and especially women in terms of our masthead.”

Among the signatories to the union’s letter were alums of the Times’ highly prestigious diversity program Metpro, including Copy Editor Kristina Bui. As a woman of color, she says she supports a union because it “can bargain for things that help push back against old barriers,” with pay scales and step raises that create a salary floor and create equity.

Ten years ago, a union would not have found the same support, and before that, such an effort would have been seen as unimaginable.

 

Is past prologue?

The Times’s first publisher, Civil War veteran Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, prided himself on being anti-labor. In 1907, the International Typographers Union called his newspaper “the most notorious, most persistent and most unfair enemy of trade unionism on the North American continent.” The reputation was earned, in part, by the general’s venomous anti-union editorials, often aimed at San Francisco, where unions were embroiled in scandals—and casting side-eye at union-friendly rival newspaper Los Angeles Examiner.

In the Times’s view, Los Angeles was a perfect business environment—an anti-labor wonderland of endless prosperity in the sun. It’s worth remembering that by 1910, American industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford were engaged in open class warfare, hiring thugs to beat back striking workers. Otis’ newspaper was “staunchly Republican and pro-growth” in the age of recently completed railways that connected Los Angeles with America. He backed efforts (some would say orchestrated) to outlaw labor demonstrations in LA.

Which is how the Los Angeles Times became the target of a 1910 bombing that killed 20 people working the late shift, when a suitcase full of dynamite exploded in an ink supply closet in its building on the corner of Broadway and First in downtown Los Angeles. Unionists were convicted of hiring the McNamara brothers to plant the bomb, which they claimed wasn’t supposed to go off until later when everyone would have left the building. The 1911 trial inspired chaos in LA streets: “Twenty thousand McNamara supporters marched on the county jail to denounce General Otis, Harry Chandler” and others as “schemers bent on crucifying organized labor,” Denis MacDougal writes in the book Privileged Son.

After he inherited the newspaper and Gen. Otis’ grudge against unions, Harry Chandler gloated: “There is one city in the United States where a labor strike has never been able to succeed. That city is Los Angeles. The reason is because it has the Los Angeles Times.”

In 1942, the Times earned its first-ever Pulitzer Prize, a Gold Medal for Public Service—and they won it while staying true to the paper’s earliest animosities against unions. The Chandlers sided with port ownership in a bloody war with the longshoreman’s union. Men up and down the California Coast had walked out on their jobs to protest. Company thugs beat them back. The Times published a volume of what MacDougal described as “biased reporting and abusive editorials” against the formation (and later existence) of the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union. The flood of copy was enough to earn a contempt citation from the judge, who simultaneously was deciding whether to grant an injunction that would prevent the union from striking. Norman Chandler took his fight over the contempt citation to the Supreme Court in 1941. Justice Harry Black, who wrote the decision in favor of the Times, wrote: “It is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste…”

He made the same solemn oath that his father had made: no unions on his watch.

For all management’s conviction, the rank-and-file did push to organize in that era. In 1944, the National Labor Relations Board oversaw the first union election ever held at the Times. According to Privileged Son, the pressmen “voted overwhelmingly to reject the union.” Ownership took it in stride, vowing to pay workers so well that they couldn’t be tempted to unionize again. That year, Harry Chandler died, passing on the newspaper to Norman, “who kept his Times ‘family’ paid at least one notch above the highest comparable union wage, (and) made the same solemn oath that his father had made: no unions on his watch.”

Slanted anti-union coverage persisted at the paper, with Norman Chandler telling Newsweek in 1967, “We were kind of lopsided in those days. If we gave the Republicans a big story, we’d give the Democrats a small one. And we only gave management’s side in labor disputes.”

That was often seen in the paper’s coverage of farmworkers and Latinos in Southern California, whose fight for passable wages was frequently met with the Times siding with farmers and underreporting labor abuses.

In the immediate aftermath of the Chandler dynasty, which ended in 2000, the Times was led by a succession of editors—some truly great ones—who were forced to go to the mat for their newsrooms and suffered defeat. Time after time, editors would leave the paper over never-ending demands for staffing cutbacks from Chicago.

The first was John Carroll. As the editor in chief whose tenure began the year Tribune took the reins from the Chandlers, Carroll was a beloved and experienced editor, who in turn recruited a pivotal managing editor, Dean Baquet from The New York Times. Baquet later remarked “we came in and the newsroom was down—but it was a hell of a newsroom,” adding “it was like a Ferrari that needed to be reminded that it was a Ferrari—and that’s what we did.”

In five years time, Carroll and Baquet led the newspaper to 13 Pulitzer Prizes, before Carroll stepped down in 2005 to protest “open-ended” cuts that he felt would damage the paper. The fight to preserve the newsroom didn’t end with Carroll. In 2006, publisher Jeff Johnson was ousted for his refusal to cut 100 jobs from a 940-member editorial staff (nearly double the size of the current staff).

Baquet, the editor in chief after Carroll, would take the same stance against job cuts and be ousted later that year. For many, it was Baquet’s departure that marked the beginning of the Times’ descent into chaos—and a pattern of bosses coming and going over clashes with Chicago. “Baquet was the last beloved editor in the newsroom. When he was forced to leave, a lot of people saw that as a really, really bad sign,” says Roderick.

One by one, editors who tried to fight Tribune were routed and ousted. Then a Trumpian real estate tycoon came along in 2007 and bought Tribune. Sam Zell openly relished being an outsider with little interest in journalism. Though the the leaders have changed many times in the intervening years, the paper hasn’t been the same since. Which helps explain why a resistance is afoot with unionization.

“For the past 10 years, it’s been the workers, not the owners, who are preserving the legacy of the Los Angeles Times,” Pearce, the national reporter, says. The idea of unionization has not been a hard sell in a newsroom in a spiral of chaos. And the early performance of the new owner has done nothing to boost newsroom trust: LA Observed on November 13 reported that, with the arrival of new editor D’Vorkin,  “Days of Discord are Back at the Los Angeles Times.” The staff is in an uproar over D’Vorkin’s decision to downplay the paper’s spat with Disney, a major advertiser.

Union supporters say the Times’s era of union busting won’t deter them. The union boosters haven’t set a date yet for making a federal filing; meantime, they’re boosting morale with a social media push for new subscribers and with support from other newsrooms.

“We think this can be successful,” says Pearce, referring to the union, and the paper. “We’re the dominant publication in the most populous, wealthiest state in the country, one that is driving the direction of the country in many ways.”

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Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for TakePart.com and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.