After a bitter contest, a Florida newsroom votes to unionize

After a contentious campaign within the newsroom, editorial employees of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune voted to form a union Thursday—becoming, along with the Lakeland Ledger, one of only two unionized newsrooms in Florida.

Both papers are owned by Gatehouse Media, and the two union drives reflect common concerns about corporate management. But while the recent unionization effort in Lakeland went fairly smoothly, with an overwhelming vote in favor last month, the campaign in Sarasota was different.

The Herald-Tribune is a paper where both local management and the rank-and-file take justifiable pride in producing hard-hitting investigations and sensitive, creative coverage of difficult issues. Editor Bill Church is among the most respected newsroom leaders in the state, and he and Patrick Dorsey, the paper’s publisher, campaigned against the union effort, arguing that new workplace rules would get in the way of needed flexibility and creativity.

Union organizers, for their part, made clear that their primary concerns were with Gatehouse, which has cut jobs and consolidated positions among its growing portfolio of small and midsized papers around the country. But the debate became, in a sense, whether newsroom resources could best be protected by local management or by affiliation with a national union, the NewsGuild-CWA.

In the end, the vote was 22-16 in favor of unionizing.

“There are a lot of decisions being made that are affecting us as individuals, us as a newsroom, and us as a company,” reporter Elizabeth Johnson, one of the local organizers, said after the vote. “A big part of this was we want to have a voice at the table.”

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One of the no votes came from Doug Fernandes, a sports columnist, who said his vote stemmed from loyalty to Church and Dorsey, in part because they supported him when he had leukemia two years ago.

“We’re one of the better papers that people don’t really know about,” he said. “We’ve got great leadership. Why are we doing this now? They have gone to the mat for us many, many times. We’re not even privy to that. They’ve created an environment where good journalism could be practiced. I trust them.”

People on both sides described a debate that grew bitter at times. Union leaders also announced that the NewsGuild last week filed an “unfair labor practice” charge alleging intimidation of employees with the National Labor Relations Board, though neither Johnson nor Bernard Lunzer, the Guild’s national president, would discuss specifics.

“There was clearly more aggressive push-back in Sarasota than in Lakeland,” said Lunzer. But like union supporters within the newsroom, he said the drive was focused on Gatehouse, not local management.

Church, though, took it personally.

“When someone says it’s not personal, it likely is personal,” he wrote in an email to the newsroom the day before the vote, which he shared with me. “I have gone through the stages of grieving in recent weeks. Anger. Depression. Acceptance. I feel responsible that we’ve reached this division of opinions and emotions.”

The next step, in both Lakeland and Sarasota, is for the local union chapters to prepare for separate contract negotiations with Gatehouse. But that could take awhile, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Managers “have a duty to bargain, but you can stall forever on the first contract,” he said. “What are the workers going to do, go on strike? That’s practically a death sentence in the newspaper industry.”

Businesses with many different units will often seek to prolong the process “so it doesn’t become a prairie fire and sweep through the company,” Lichtenstein said.

Indeed, there are signs that the Guild is making inroads within Gatehouse. Two Illinois newspapers voted to unionize after being bought by the company in recent years, before the Florida papers followed suit this year. And a group of journalists at The Columbus Dispatch, the chain’s largest paper, is now also discussing a union drive.

“We’ve explored doing this for the same reasons the people in Sarasota did,” said Mark Ferenchik, a reporter at the Dispatch.* “We want to maintain the quality and level of journalism that we produce here. We’re still discussing it.”

The Dispatch has gone from 1,100 employees to 800 since Gatehouse bought the paper, which had been family-owned, in June 2015, according to an article in Columbus Business First. That has happened through a combination of staff cuts and attrition, Ferenchik said. “One of the reasons people have left is because they’re concerned about the future of the newspaper under Gatehouse.”

No one at Gatehouse headquarters returned a phone message left Friday morning.

Back in Sarasota, everyone I talked to is hoping the big battles are behind them for now, and they can concentrate on journalism.

“Hopefully we can all come together now that it’s over,” Fernandes said. “I think that everybody is glad it’s over.”

Said Johnson: “I have respect for everyone in the newsroom. This was tough.”

Dorsey, the publisher, said in an email he was “disappointed” with the outcome, “but we will continue to do excellent journalism as always.”

“We had a terrific newsroom yesterday and it will be that same terrific newsroom tomorrow,” he wrote. “While this was a split vote, we are all united in continuing to serve our community at a high level long into the future.”

And Church told me: “We had talented journalists on both sides fighting for this, and I wouldn’t want to lose any one of them at this point.”

* Correction: This post originally misspelled the last name of Columbus Dispatch reporter Mark Ferenchik.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.