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L.A. Times and The Onion today, Trib tomorrow? Unions making gains in newsrooms

Los Angeles Times

A successful unionization effort at the Los Angeles Times is drawing attention to the issue of journalists joining unions in Chicago and across the country. |
AP File Photo/Richard Vogel

Staff at the Chicago-based satirical website, The Onion, have voted to unionize — part of a growing trend, both locally and nationally, as journalists seek protections in a business that continues to be pummeled by bad news.

Workers at the website and its sister sites — A.V. Club, The Takeout, ClickHole and Onion Labs — will be represented in collective bargaining talks by the Writers Guild of America East and will negotiate with the owners, including the Spanish-language broadcaster Univision.

A spokesman for The Onion declined to answer questions Friday about future negotiations, instead issuing a statement. “We are dedicated to providing an environment where all our employees can thrive and we respect their right to unionize. We have begun having discussions with the [Writers Guild of America East] about the path forward and hope to arrive at an arrangement in short order,” spokesman David Ford said.

Just how many staff members will be part of the union has yet to be finalized, although it’s expected to be approximately 100 people, a source said.

A.V. Club’s deputy managing editor, Caitlin PenzeyMoog, said staffers began exploring union representation six months ago, with 90 percent of the workers signing union cards by last week.

PenzeyMoog says digital media is a precarious industry; she’s seen some of her peers suffer while others have thrived with union protection.

But what’s driving interest in unions now, when newsrooms across America have faced layoffs, wage cuts and other setbacks for years?

Recent favorable polling on union support suggests younger media workers — millennials — are contributing to the movement, according to Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.

“They aren’t sure they are going to be able to afford a house. They aren’t sure they are going to be able to pay college loans back,” Bruno said. “They aren’t feeling like the American dream is possible for them.”

Also, “People want a bit of say in their workplace, they want some standing to talk with their employers — not only about wages and benefits — but job protections and how to ensure the product remains high quality,” said David Roeder, an organizer with the Chicago News Guild, which represents the Chicago Sun-Times, the Reader and a number of suburban newspapers owned by Tronc, parent company of the Chicago Tribune.

“People are doing this out of their love for their occupation as journalists,” Roeder said. “They are trying to do what they can, dealing with owners who might not have journalism as a core principle anymore.”

Organized labor in newsrooms has become a hot topic since journalists at the Los Angeles Times, another Tronc newspaper, voted to unionize amid organizational changes that had been planned under Michael Ferro, a Chicago tech entrepreneur who once controlled the Chicago Sun-Times but left to become a lead owner in Tribune Publishing, later renamed Tronc.

After the union vote, Tronc announced plans to sell the Times to California billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong — a deal that is expected to close by the end of April.

In the wake of the Times’ unionization effort, journalists at the Chicago Tribune also are now weighing whether to unionize, with media columnist Robert Feder reporting two weeks ago that a group of Tribune staffers had met with Chicago News Guild representatives.

Feder wrote: “The meeting was described as preliminary to a full-scale organizing effort.” Roeder declined to comment on Feder’s report.

But Roeder did caution that unions aren’t a panacea for journalists. “Unionizing cannot fix the economic ills of the business,” he said. “What it can do is involve workers in in the dialogue about how to improve things, how to reach out for new products and strive for new revenue.”

There are risks to unionization, as the newsrooms at DNAinfo in Chicago and New York discovered last year, when owner Joe Ricketts abruptly shut down operations, laying off a total 116 employees. The move came just days after Ricketts’ New York staff voted to unionize.

Ricketts had been vocal in his opposition to unionizing, saying it creates “a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.”

But Roeder said comparisons between DNAinfo and a huge organization like the Los Angeles Times aren’t fair.

“The DNA situation was unique because it was not really a business,” he said. “It was a Joe Ricketts charity, essentially. He was funding it almost 100 percent. … So that posed a difficult prospect for any union organizing.”

With one of the nation’s largest, most-respected news organizations in America, the Times’ union efforts are likely to be watched closely by other newsrooms nationwide, Bruno said.

“Given its importance to the history of the newspaper industry, given its size, it will matter what the product of this organizing leads to,” Bruno said, adding that professionals industry-wide “really do fear that the industry isn’t being well managed. They worry that media owners aren’t taking care of the journalism profession.”

Contributing: Associated Press