As NewsGuild holds election, members say union has been too passive

On May 13, the NewsGuild-CWA will begin tallying votes for its historic presidential election. The union, which represents more than 20,000 journalists, has grown in the past 5 years as many digital natives have unionized in response political and corporate pressures endangering newsrooms. Now, the leadership of the NewsGuild may be changing for the first time in 11 years, as Jon Schleuss, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, 31, challenges Bernie Lunzer, the incumbent, 61, in a combative race.

“This is a critically important election, not just for journalists and media workers, but for everyone in the industry,” says LA Times journalist Paul Pringle. “Newsrooms are shrinking, incomes are stagnant, these are all issues that smart and capable collective bargaining can address.”

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Katie Mettler, an Executive Council Member of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, explains, “The election is important because it’s about building on the collective bargaining momentum that could save our newsrooms.”

The election will determine the future of an organization whose goal is to advocate for a profession gutted by corporate layoffs and political attacks. Established in 1933, the NewsGuild’s mission is to improve wages and working conditions, and to advocate for transparency in journalism and the news industries business practices. Concerned members feel the current leadership hasn’t met either commitment. “Unfortunately the national leadership of the Guild is passively presiding over a decade of decline,” Pringle, who was part of the LA Times organizing efforts, says. “The irony is we are the people tasked with holding other industries accountable for the same kind of incompetence.”

Journalists also say that NewsGuild hasn’t had a cohesive and organized response to the new unions. Pringle says the NewsGuild national officers were not helpful in organizing the LA Times newsroom—and it ended up using local union leaders to help organize their collective bargaining efforts. Other journalists of newly organized newsrooms had the same problems. Brock Vergakis, a journalist for the Virginian-Pilot, noted that the national union has failed to get them and many other newly organized newsrooms to the bargaining table. “Some of us have been waiting eight to twelve months to be brought to the table. The process definitely lacks transparency.”

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Mettler notes, “We are journalists, we are professional communicators. But the lack of communication from the national organization is trickling down to the locals and making our job so much harder.”

Schleuss tells CJR that he decided to run for NewsGuild president after helping to organize the union drive at the Los Angeles Times. “This is a critical time for journalists,” Schleuss says. “We need to organize and advocate for ourselves.” His platform includes building on the grassroots momentum, bringing in new media to share ideas across union locals, bolstering support for the newer members, advocating for diversity in newsrooms, and establishing transparency in the union.

(Lunzer did not respond to request for comment. His campaign website states, “Our members are overworked and underpaid. Many owners who should care about the future of journalism simply don’t. They’re greedy. They kill our products and blame the internet.”)

But Schleuss has not been welcomed in the race, and, he feels, shut out from a fair campaign by a byzantine voting system, lack of communication from the national office, and an internally controlled election process. Lunzer, who has refused to be on conference calls with Schleuss, told Labor Notes that the LA journalists are a “very demanding group.”

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At the NewsGuild’s national conference in Orlando in January, when delegates nominate candidates, Schleuss met strong resistance from the established leadership. Since the Los Angeles Times, like many other newly unionized offices, hasn’t been given contracts, members haven’t paid dues. If you don’t pay dues, you can’t vote. Schleuss discovered he could pay dues early and scrambled off to the conference with some colleagues to make his bid.

Marian Needham, the union’s executive vice president, said Schleuss lacked experience and that, if he was elected, she may not continue in her position. “I’m running on a slate. . . Bernie, and Marian came together to get elected. Together. I support Bernie. I want Bernie to be the president of this organization,” she said.

Needham’s comments are particularly noteworthy considering her role in the ballots process. Needham is the one who sends out the ballots to local unions.

As Mettler explains, the NewsGuild-CWA does not have a central database of addresses or emails for journalists, and hasn’t effectively communicated that the election is happening. Mettler is concerned that journalists who have moved or joined in the past year won’t even know about the vote until it’s too late.

She also, in an internal email, expressed a preference for who would go on the Sector Election and Referendum Committee (SERC), which is in charge of the election. All of the people she supported were voted onto the SERC at the national conference. When asked about the email regarding the SERC selection process, and her speech at the conference threatening to resign if Schleuss were elected, Needham said, “We could talk about that after the ballots get counted.”  She then hung up the phone. An alternate member of the SERC, Stevie Blanchard, has publicly endorsed Bernie Lunzer.  

When Schleuss and Pringle asked at the conference and over email about the possible conflict of interest, they were told there would be no independent oversight of the election. SERC member Scott Edmonds tells CJR via email that the SERC members are not barred from participating in the election they oversee. On the request for independent oversight, Edmonds says, “[Jon] is entitled to his opinions and I feel no need to engage in a debate over them.” Barbara Camens, NewsGuild-CWA general counsel, says in a statement to CJR, “I have not endorsed Bernie Lunzer, nor have I ever endorsed a Guild candidate.” She also noted, “The SERC has the responsibility to ensure that the election is run in compliance with the Guild constitution, SERC election rules and governing law, and I do my very best to ensure that compliance.”

Schleuss has also complained that Lunzer’s Twitter and campaign Facebook pages feature the NewsGuild logo, even though union rules state that the logo can’t be used in election materials. Asked about the picture by CJR on May 2, Edmonds said it had been taken down. But, as of May 6, the picture was still the banner image on Lunzer’s campaign Facebook page and his personal Facebook page. Additionally, the NewsGuild Twitter page had a habit of liking Lunzer’s campaign tweets. When Schleuss brought this to Edmond’s attention, he was told the “likes” would be removed.

The back and forth can often feel pedantic, but, these issues add up to a level of skepticism and distrust on the part of both the established union leaders and the newly unionized journalists. Randy Furst, a journalist at the Minneapolis-Star Tribune and a long-time labor organizer, expressed concern that election hasn’t been held in a transparent way. He said his local union voting was supposed to be in person with no provision for absentee ballots, which is a problem for journalists who are often on the road. The way the entire election has been conducted thus far, says Furst, “reflects the general disorganization I believe of the Lunzer administration.” (In response to pushback from its members, the local added absentee ballots.)

Furst questions whether the established union leaders are up to the task of overseeing all the newsrooms that are pushing to organize. “I’m concerned that the newspaper industry is under attack and its workers are under attack,” he says. “And there’s been this sudden explosion of organizing, which has happened I think to a considerable degree in spite of the international leadership.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly identify Scott Edmonds, and to clarify that the Minneapolis Star-Tribune now allows absentee ballots.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.