McClatchy, the corporate owners of The Bellingham Herald who were taken over by a hedge fund after bankruptcy, appears willing to accept the inevitable. News employees at the chain’s four Washington newspapers are all but certain to unionize, to protect their own interests along with the integrity of professional journalism in their communities.
But McClatchy has raised a major objection to the new bargaining unit, called the Washington State NewsGuild. According to a petition McClatchy filed Dec. 31 with the National Labor Relations Board, the newspaper chain wants the proposed union divided into four—one for each newspaper.
The NewsGuild will fight McClatchy’s move when both sides state their cases before the NLRB at a remote hearing, 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12.
“McClatchy’s attempts to make our union smaller, with newsrooms that only have a handful of workers, is something we consider to be a blatant attempt to undercut our power,” said Chase Hutchinson, a reporter for The Peninsula Gateway and The News Tribune of Tacoma.
McClatchy is also asking that Dave Rasbach, onetime sports editor at The Bellingham Herald and current breaking-news reporter, be excluded from the union. The Bellingham Herald’s website lists Rasbach as a reporter, but a document submitted to the NLRB appears to say his job title is “senior editor/sports and feature (sic); breaking-news reporter.” Rasbach occasionally serves as backup editor, supporting Executive Editor and General Manager Julie Shirley.
All told, McClatchy seeks to exclude one person from each paper. And overall, McClatchy appears willing to recognize 35 employees as union members at the four papers—20 at The News Tribune, and five each at The Bellingham Herald, The Olympian, and the Tri-City Herald.
McClatchy just doesn’t want them all under the same union banner.
McClatchy’s argument, detailed here, says the newspapers are hundreds of miles apart, and the four newsrooms are on four separate missions to report their various communities’ news. “At bottom, the four newspapers are disparate and independent in myriad ways, including geographic location, localized autonomy and control, and terms and conditions of employment. Accordingly, each paper requires its own bargaining unit,” McClatchy’s argument concludes.
For its part, the NewsGuild will bring its own ream of past case law to argue that a “multifacility unit” is appropriate in this case.
Denver Pratt, crime and justice reporter for The Bellingham Herald, said McClatchy has been treating the four Washington papers as a single team.
“We collaborate intensively,” Pratt said. “There’s so much talk among our editors, and we have the same state regional editor.” Reporters at the four papers sometimes write into a single story, providing their local angles on the issue being covered, she said.
“Everything up to this point from McClatchy has been telling us, over and over again, that we are a collective whole, that we are covering the state and working together,” she said. “If you’re going to treat us as a collective whole, then treat us as a collective whole.”
Pratt said McClatchy had signalled late last week that it would be willing to recognize a single bargaining unit representing the Tacoma and Olympia papers, but Bellingham and the Tri-Cities should remain separate.
“If two of our papers can be together, then why can’t all four?” she said.
The petition filed on behalf of The Bellingham Herald indicates that Executive Editor Shirley is opposing the formation of a single union among the four papers in the state. However, the form was filled out and signed by a lawyer. Shirley’s role in this case may be in name only. She did not return a request for comment.
“Our unionization efforts are not a referendum on any of our local leadership, and that includes Julie,” Pratt said. The union’s goals, she said, are about a living wage for reporters and photographers, sure—but they’re also about diversity and stability.
“This is about making sure … that the newsrooms reflect the communities we cover, and that there will be strong journalism in these communities for decades to come,” she said.
“McClatchy could still do the right thing. They could still voluntarily recognize our union,” Pratt added.
After the NLRB hears the two sides Tuesday morning, the board will deliberate and issue its decision at a later date. If McClatchy loses, it could appeal. If the NewsGuild loses, one option would be to ask McClatchy if the four units could collaborate during contract negotiations. And if McClatchy doesn’t voluntarily recognize the union, in whatever form, workers would vote to unionize. The guild is confident that vote would succeed.
The past 12 months have been rough for Bellingham Herald staff. In February 2020, McClatchy declared bankruptcy, following a long period when it dragged itself deeper into debt after the ill-advised purchase of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain in 2006. Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced business lockdowns, and reporters were largely isolated from each other, working from home. Then, in late summer, a deal enabling McClatchy to emerge from bankruptcy was finalized. The chain would be sold to its largest creditor, the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. Herald workers knew Chatham had already decimated Canada’s largest newspaper chain.
The move to form a union, which began shortly after the Chatham deal was done, has galvanized Pratt’s morale, she said.
“I think it’s made me more invested in my workplace,” she said. “My hope is the community sees we’re not just doing this for ourselves but that we’re doing this for them, and that we really care.”
“I have loved working at the Herald, and I still love it.”