LOS ANGELES (CN) – The Los Angeles Times newsroom will vote this week to determine if a union is in the cards for reporters who tell the stories of countless lives across the region and the world.
Now the people of that newsroom want their voices heard. Union organizers’ frustrations lie with a corporate culture that seems detached from the newsroom and reporters have documented their grievances on the public blog, the LA Times Guild.
Employees have also shared some of their exchanges with their publisher, Chicago-based Tronc, and editors in a section titled “Union Busting 101.”
On Dec. 22, the LA Times Guild reported a $5 million consulting agreement between Tronc and one of its executives’ consulting firms. The agreement, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission report, says Michael Ferro’s company will receive $15 million over a three-year period to provide “certain management expertise and technical services.”
Anthony Pesce, the LA Times’ data journalist and union organizer, said corporate turnover and removal of accrued vacation time are just a few examples of actions taken by management that has hurt morale within the company. The claims by management that a union will hurt the newsroom are outrageous, said Pesce.
“It’s problematic that the executives at this company can spend lavishly on themselves and ignore the journalists’ work that provides for their salary,” said Pesce. “It’s our position that they need to invest in the newsroom. Our vote to form a union is to say ‘If you’re going to keep rotating people out, we need a voice at the table. You should hear from us.’”
The call to unionize is a vote of no-confidence for management, said Gabriel Kahn, professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism.
“The LA Times staff has been driven to this position not for any sentimental love of union politics,” said Kahn. “For more than a decade they’ve had successive regimes that have had no vision or path forward for the paper, not to mention petty spats between the board owners, a hostile work culture and so on and so forth. All of this has drained the faith the newsroom could ever have in management.”
Kahn is referring to a bankruptcy filing by former publisher Tribune Company in 2008, and staff reductions at the Los Angeles Times over the last decade.
“Management has mistreated the newsroom. This is a precarious institution. It’s a publicly traded company and it needs some adults at the helm. If management won’t do it, the union will,” Kahn said.
November was a busy month for Los Angeles media outlets, which experienced seismic shifts including the sale of the LA Weekly to a group of investors from Orange County. The new owners fired a majority of the indie newspaper’s editorial staff in late November.
Also in November, the Gothamist network was shut down by its billionaire owner Joe Ricketts, taking along with it several online publications including the hyperlocal news site LAist.
Emma Whitford, former reporter and union organizer with New York site Gothamist, said the reporters wanted a seat at the table when it came to big decisions being made at the company, but pushback from Ricketts immediately centered on finances.
“We never asked explicitly for raises. Our goal was to keep this a vibrant newsroom,” said Whitford.
Union organizers launched a public campaign to get management’s attention to identify the union, but they saw little results. The Writers Guild of America said reporters should receive that recognition before going to the bargaining table.
“There is something to be said about an employer recognizing the union,” said Whitford. “If you force it, you are at the table with someone who has no interest and we would be on the back foot.”
They never made it to the bargaining table, as Ricketts shut down the websites with a public letter posted online over their stories.
The Los Angeles Times declined to comment on its employees’ unionizing efforts. In a public statement, CEO and publisher Ross Levinsohn said, “Whether the Los Angeles Times newsroom has a union or not, we will continue to produce world-class journalism and maintain the independent spirit Times employees have embraced for generations. This has been a rapidly changing period for the media industry and an especially challenging few years for local journalism. At the same time, trustworthy, independent journalism is as necessary as ever.”
Meanwhile, reporters with the Los Angeles Times have shared messages on social media from management, including Lewis D’Vorkin who took over as editor-in-chief this past October. Those messages urge reporters to vote against a union. Reporters will vote on Jan. 4, and expect to have the results from the National Labor Relations Board by the end of the month.
Kahn, the USC journalism professor, said while the Los Angeles Times continues to produce original reporting on a daily basis, management has not shown innovation in engaging with readers.
Reporters see their chance to unionize not as a means to divide the 135-year-old newspaper, but to save it.
When asked what alternatives are in place if the union proposal does not receive enough votes, Pesce the data journalist said that’s not an option.