McClatchy put up a fight, but newsroom employees at The Bellingham Herald and three other Washington newspapers got what they wanted -- a single union to represent workers at all four papers. The new bargaining unit, the Washington State NewsGuild, is preparing to sit down with corporate representatives in the weeks or months ahead, to negotiate what it hopes will be more stability for both employees and the communities they serve.
After guild members from the Herald, The News Tribune of Tacoma, The Olympian and the Tri-City Herald signaled their intent to unionize under a single banner, McClatchy objected. The newspaper chain argued in a Dec. 31 petition to the National Labor Relations Board that employees at each of the four newspapers should have their own unions, advocating for their unique interests. The guild saw McClatchy’s move to break up the union as a “blatant attempt to undercut our power,” as Tacoma reporter Chase Hutchinson described it before the NLRB heard the case in January. (Workers had reason to be wary. McClatchy's largest creditor, Chatham Asset Management, took over the chain last year after it declared bankruptcy. Chatham isn't always interested in preserving the newspapers it owns, as Canada's largest newspaper chain learned.)
The NLRB sided with the guild in a ruling announced Feb. 24. One day later, McClatchy said it would recognize the guild, eliminating the need for a union vote among workers that had been tentatively scheduled for early March.
So far, all the pieces are in place for McClatchy management and employees to figure out how to make everyone happy -- give the journalists fair compensation, give corporate something it is willing to sustain, and, importantly, give four Washington state communities the news they need in the long term.
Responding to an inquiry from NWCitizen, McClatchy Communications Director Jeanne Segal provided the following statement on March 1: “We will voluntarily recognize the bargaining unit our newsroom colleagues in Washington state seek to form. This pathway allows us to accelerate the process of starting negotiations. We look forward to working collaboratively with the Washington State NewsGuild to advance this process and ensure a strong future for local journalism in Tacoma, Olympia, Bellingham and Tri-Cities.”
Segal also pointed to a statement posted to Twitter on Feb. 25 by Stephanie Pedersen, McClatchy’s northwest regional editor: “Last week I told our team I’m eager to get to the negotiating table. This week’s news makes it clear one guild in Washington covering four newsrooms is how that will happen. We’re ready to move forward, voluntarily recognize and quickly work towards a contract.” Pedersen added, “The leadership team and our colleagues fundamentally share the same mission: to produce strong local journalism that serves our communities.”
Denver Pratt, a Bellingham Herald reporter who has spearheaded the union effort locally, said both the NLRB ruling and McClatchy’s subsequent decision to recognize the union were “great news” but were only the beginning.
“It just means we can start getting to the big issues,” Pratt said in a phone interview March 1. “We can start working to make sure we have robust local journalism in our communities for decades to come.” The guild will select a bargaining committee from among its members and finalize a list of negotiating points. That list is sure to include fair pay and steps toward more newsroom diversity, to ensure that the communities’ news is presented by people who better reflect the makeup of those communities. The status of Bellingham breaking news reporter Dave Rasbach may also be decided in negotiations, Pratt said. McClatchy is contesting his membership in the union, citing his occasional duties as editor.
One of the most pressing concerns at the guild currently is a minimum wage McClatchy promised in a company-wide email on Feb. 5, only to say later that Washington journalists wouldn’t be getting the wage guarantee, scheduled to take effect March 1.
“McClatchy has announced its intent to withhold those raises from Washington journalists, claiming our ongoing union drive prevents the company from providing this money,” the guild said in a Feb. 19 press release. McClatchy’s Segal declined to comment on the raise issue.
McClatchy’s new minimum wage would be $20.19 or $21.63, depending on the community. Pratt wasn’t sure which figure applied in Bellingham, but in either case the new minimum wage would mean raises for two Bellingham Herald employees and nine McClatchy journalists statewide, she said.
“We believe that our employees in Washington are eligible for those, and we’re working on making that happen,” Pratt said.
While Pratt characterized last week’s developments as “a huge, exciting moment,” and she said she was pleased that McClatchy “sent us the signal that they are ready to move forward,” guild members are casting a wary eye toward Florida. One Herald Guild, representing employees at el Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald, took to Twitter on Feb. 25 to vent frustration over negotiations with McClatchy that had begun more than a year earlier. “(McClatchy) claims staff are partners in local journalism, while making anti-worker proposals that would allow it to layoff journalists at will, outsource Herald journalism, & fire journalists for making social media statements that are work-related or critical of the company,” One Herald Guild tweeted, adding, “After 1yr of bargaining, we demand that McClatchy negotiate in good faith to address our proposals for wages, benefits & policies to build up our newsroom. Respond to our proposals at the table. Stop making proposals to weaken the newsroom. Pick up the pace of negotiations.”
Let’s hope that a year from now, The Bellingham Herald’s workers have a contract and a newfound sense of security, not the litany of complaints coming out of Miami today.