Tronc's anti-union strategy

By the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee

 

Tronc has launched its anti-union campaign and, so far, it’s rather primitive stuff.

Tronc has no argument for why Los Angeles Times journalists should not enjoy the same guild representation – the same voice in our futures – as our peers at other major news organizations. So Tronc is instructing newsroom managers to tell us scary stories about pay cuts, layoffs, strikes, dues and that old standby, that the union is an outsider.

The union is, in fact, the creation of a grassroots committee of journalists from the newsroom determined to address years of mistreatment by an out-of-touch corporation. Tronc, the true outsider, knows its arguments are based on fallacies or outright falsehoods.

The real truth is that, for many years now, we have fallen farther and farther behind our guild-represented peers in pay and benefits, and we have none of their job security. At the same time, Tronc executives get fat compensation packages and lavish perks. They get raises and bonuses. We don’t. They continue to hire at substandard wages, then do nothing as those hires leave for better-paying jobs. We deal with the fallout.

The National Labor Relations Board provides a guide to the tactics employers can and cannot legally use. Please check it out. And if you suspect Tronc is requiring your manager to engage in an unlawful labor practice, please take careful notes and talk to a member of the organizing committee.

We hope Tronc will not embarrass The Times by presenting dishonest arguments aimed at denying us a voice. Here, we address in detail the Tronc anti-union playbook and the truth: The Tronc Playbook.

 
 

1. “The Other” — Portraying the union as a selfish third party

 

This argument goes something like this: “The union is only after your dues money.” “You don’t need a union to bring your concerns to management.” “We’re a family, the union will get in the way of our relationship.” It should go without saying that Tronc is a massive corporation, not our family, and that our concerns were ignored before we started talking about collective action.

 

2. Work Rules!

 

Tronc is warning that “mandatory” and “union-imposed” rules will interfere with our ability to do our jobs, reducing our flexibility and hindering our ability to stay competitive. In fact, the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are all still publishing newspapers, adding readers and innovating under the weight of all those union rules!

We as a newsroom will elect our own local union leadership and bargaining committee, and we’ll all vote on the contract. We get to decide what rules we ask for. Who could be more qualified than L.A. Times journalists to determine whether a rule will interfere with our work?

 

3. Divide and conquer

 

Tronc and its representatives will tell you that gains for some workers will come at the expense of others. This divide-and-conquer strategy is designed to sow doubt about our efforts. And it inaccurately describes what our movement is about.

We firmly believe more money should be going to newsroom employees – and that management should, as a matter of course, plan for raises in its yearly budget.

That money is there. Remember, Tronc already has spent millions of dollars on:

 

4. Worst-case scenarios

 

Here comes the scary stuff: “The union may force you to strike.” “You could end up with less.” “The union may fine you, punish you, or get you fired.” “We may not be able to promote you.”

Let’s flip it around. If we wanted to spin out a bunch of worst-case scenarios in favor of forming a union they might look something like this:

  • We could suffer for years under petty, arbitrary and inept ownership with no way of getting our concerns addressed.
  • We could work for years and see only a single 2% to 3% cost-of-living increase.
  • Tronc could step in and fire a journalist without stating a reason, or for explanations that would not be accepted in many other states and in many other businesses.
 
1. "The union is a third party"
 

If we decide to unionize we’ll form our own local and be part of the NewsGuild, which is part of an even larger union called the Communications Workers of America. This is a good thing for some very practical reasons.

Tronc is a large corporation with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. It has made it clear it opposes our union effort and is likely willing to put a lot of resources toward defeating our movement and, eventually, fighting our requests in contract negotiations. If we’re going to fight Tronc for fair, competitive pay and better benefits, we need resources. CWA and the NewsGuild have the resources – both legal and financial – and the expertise we need to make it a fair fight with Tronc.

Being part of a larger organization means a small portion of our dues will go toward supporting CWA and the Guild, but we’ll actually form and govern our own “local” union for Los Angeles Times employees. Under Guild rules, dues make up 1.38% of an employee’s salary.

The vast majority of that money will go toward supporting our own union, and we get to elect our own officers from inside the newsroom to administer the money.

We will run all of the day-to-day aspects of our local with some administrative and financial oversight from the Guild, and within the confines of its bylaws. For all intents and purposes we will have our own union. The “third party” is us.

 
2. “The union is a business recruiting members for dues.”
 

Tronc will imply the NewsGuild came in and tried to recruit the newsroom to join so they can get our dues money. That message can be seen in this Ken Doctor piece:

Simultaneously, the Newspaper Guild has been quietly mounting a unionization effort at the Times, and less-than-popular newsroom leadership would only increase the chances of its success there.

The truth is, several Times journalists decided we would be more effective working together to address a lack of pay increases; the imposition of the new “unlimited” (LOL) vacation policy; a Tronc proposal, floated last year, to move digital jobs outside of the newsroom; and the company’s struggle with recruitment and retention, among many concerns. We contacted the Guild, not the other way around.

We first called union representatives in December 2016. They asked us to form an organizing committee and talk to our co-workers to gauge interest. We were excited to find significant support for the idea of a union. Once we were pretty far along, the Guild assigned us an organizer to provide support. We can’t thank them enough for it, even as we acknowledge the grassroots work within our newsroom that got the process started.

 
3. "The union will force rules on our workplace"
 

Strict workplace rules are a hallmark of blue-collar union shops, like in the construction industry. It’s true that union contracts often contain rules some consider onerous, and that some newspapers have older contracts with rules that are outdated or don’t make sense. For instance, some newsrooms prohibit managers from writing, shooting photos, or laying out pages.

Does the Guild mandate a contract contain these rules? No.

Will we exclude design editors from laying out a page, photo editors from shooting, or news editors from writing a story? No. We don’t think that makes sense in 2017.

We as a newsroom will elect the bargaining committee, which will survey everyone on what we do and don’t want in our contract. The newsroom will decide what rules we negotiate for, and we will all vote on the contract to ratify it.

Does the Guild mandate anything be in our contract? Yes. Guild bylaws specify (p. 34) that, for example, seniority needs to be addressed in wages and working conditions. That’s a flexible requirement. We don’t have to follow a preordained template for whether and how we factor seniority into policies for promotions or vacation.

Are there rules that make sense? We think so, yes. Some things we’d like to consider are:

Getting our old vacation policy back, and improving it. Barring that, we’d like to specify that the policy provide for a minimum amount of guaranteed vacation
Specifying a reasonable work week (around 40 hours) while allowing a great degree of flexibility for emergencies, breaking news and individual preference.
Ensuring hourly employees are compensated fairly for overtime and overnight work.
 

 
4. "A union means last in, first out"
 

It’s true that many union contracts use seniority as a strict determination for layoffs, but it’s not a requirement. In our conversations with colleagues we have heard little appetite for such a strict policy. We have, however, heard concerns that previous rounds of layoffs and buyouts have targeted older journalists more than others and that may have to be addressed. It’s obvious we all need more protection, and a clear set of guidelines.

If we form a union, we have an opportunity to work collectively on policies the majority of the newsroom – across ages, departments, and levels of experience – can agree on:

A formal grievance procedure with binding arbitration.
Fair notice of layoffs, preceded by voluntary buyouts.
Recall rights, where if a job opened up in the future a laid off employee would have a right to come back.
The right to move into a previous role/department unaffected by the layoff.
Contractually mandated severance packages.
The organizing committee doesn’t have an opinion on what a layoff clause should look like, and we can’t promise that what the newsroom proposes will be accepted by Tronc. Here’s what we can promise: we will create an open, transparent, and democratic process for our proposal, which will be accessible to everyone in the bargaining unit.

If you’d like to take a look at layoff provisions in other newspaper contracts, here are some:

The Baltimore Sun, on page 27 (a Tronc newspaper)
The Washington Post, on page 25
Dow Jones, page 12
 

 
5. "You could lose money in a contract negotiation."
 

This is a fallacy based on a kernel of truth. Any negotiation, of course, is give and take. We’re never going to ask for a contract that takes money from some people to boost others, and the newsroom wouldn’t vote for that.

Hear this argument for what it is: a careful strategy from Tronc designed to accomplish two things:

  1. Frame the contract negotiation process as a zero-sum game and use that tactic to divide the newsroom.
  2. Lower our expectations for contract negotiations to strengthen their position when their union busting effort fails.

Tronc has plenty of money; they’re just not making the journalists at the Los Angeles Times a priority. If we want to change that thinking, we need to bargain collectively.

 
6. "When you negotiate a contract, you start from zero."
 

When we negotiate a contract we always start from our current wages and benefits. The “start from zero” argument isn’t just inaccurate, it can rise to the level of an unfair labor practice. Here’s an excerpt of the summary of the linked Taylor Dunn decision by the National Labor Relations Board:

It is well established that “bargaining from ground zero” or “bargaining from scratch” statements by employer representatives violate Section 8(a)(l) of the Act if, in context, they reasonably could be understood by employees as a threat of loss of existing benefits and leave employees with the impression that what they may ultimately receive depends upon what the union can induce the employer to restore. On the other hand, such statements are not violative of the Act when other communications make it clear that any reduction in wages or benefits will occur only as a result of the normal give and take of negotiations.

See our response to #5 on the “give and take” argument.

 
7. "The union may force you to strike."
 

Strikes are a rare and extreme measure – 97% of CWA contract negotiations end without a strike and that is our expectation and preference. Some union contracts even explicitly forbid strikes and lockouts.

We are “the union” and we’d have to vote to authorize a strike (Guild bylaws, p. 38), which in our case the Guild would have to approve. While they are a technical possibility, strikes from major newspapers are extraordinarily rare. We would have to be in a truly exceptional circumstance to consider it.

There have been a small handful of large newspaper strikes in the past 30-plus years. The most recent was The Seattle Times in 2000, which you can read about in the New York Times here and here.