By James Warren
Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed, cautioned workers against embracing unionization last week. The comments weren’t made in a vacuum, given moves by employees at Gawker Media, VICE, Salon and the Guardian to unionize in recent months. He suggested that unions represented a needlessly adversarial force and are more suited to other sorts of workplaces—more blue-collar, more assembly-line oriented—than a “new economy” upstart like BuzzFeed. And, for sure, his entrepreneurial creation is on the rise, as underscored by a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal, a unit of cable giant Comcast. Old economy stalwarts cringe with envy.
Bernie Lunzer respectfully disagrees with Peretti. He’s president of The NewsGuild-CWA, the largest union of media workers. He represents about 26,000 workers at about 300 different media entities, including workers at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Boston Globe, San Jose Mercury News, digital start-up Truthout and the digital operations at many, but not all, big print publications, such as Philly.com. It’s the smaller Writers Guild of America, East, that has recently unionized workers at Gawker Media, VICE and Salon, with the Guild having done likewise at the Guardian.
The union was born in 1933 and was the idea of Heywood Broun, a famous New York City newspaper columnist. Broun fashioned what was originally the American Newspaper Guild as an industrial, not just craft (journalists-only) union, meaning it would represent workers in other departments, such as sales and circulation.
Lunzer, 57, was a college English major who worked in marketing, advertising, circulation and editorial (“My writing was more Faulknerian than pyramid -style”) at the St. Paul Pioneer-Press before winning election to a national union position in Washington in 1995. He was elected president in 2005. He’s been unavoidably involved in organizing and bargaining contracts during a cataclysmic period in which his mainstream newspaper members have been creamed by the industry’s downturn, while organizing challenges have been posed by many media start-ups. It’s brought the need to bargain concessionary agreements at some places and also assisting in developing alternative ownership models, including one employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) in Portland, Maine that is now defunct. He’s been involved in several failed union attempts to buy newspapers, including in Philadelphia, trying to make virtue out of necessity during a dramatic transformation in media economics.
Here’s an edited version of two phone chats in recent days:
What did you think of Peretti’s comments?
Basically, I thought that it is important to remember that U.S. labor law talks about workers having the ability to organize. It lets managers make statement but the choice is not up to managers. Employees should make that choice without any fear.
Say one of his reporters or editors were in your office and said, “Well, he seemed to make some good points. And Comcast is now investing $200 million in us. Things seem pretty good.” What would you say?
First of all, there are never any guarantees at any workplace. Having a union gives you a voice, the chance to talk on a more equal basis with those who own and manage your company. Based on the uncertainty of the times, there are no guarantees for any news operations— digital, print or otherwise—and people are looking for more certainty. Not just wages and hours, the traditional stuff, which matters. But every workplace has things people want to talk about. And I would be surprised that every workplace isn’t like that. Of course, there is the stereotype of unions from the 1930s and 1940s, of being combative and inhibiting. We in the Guild work as partners and help bring stronger publications online and in print. I think that [view of being an obstacle] is crazy.
The last thing we would want is people organizing just because they’re angry. That’s not productive. It’s not about the angry. It’s about a democracy in your workplace so you can gather and talk about your concerns. Not that there won’t be adversarial issues, like wanting higher wages. But there are a lot of issues where we can partner with management. We can do it in a way that a non-unionized work force can’t. Look at Chattanooga [Tennessee] and the Volkswagen experience, where Volkswagen wanted to bring in European-style works councils (of blue-collar and white-collar employees].
In our country, you need organized employees to do that. It’s about wanting to have a say in your future. Even to the point where we try to use the relationship to touch upon things not covered in collective bargaining, like business models and ethics. The idea that the CEO is all-wise in predicting the future is just not true. You need an organization where people are not fearful to speak.
What about concerns about editorial quality if there’s a union?
I think we are in newsrooms where the preponderance of Pulitzers are awarded. I don’t think it’s accidental. We are part of communities and care very much about quality and Pulitzers. We don’t stop employers in paying more money to certain individuals beyond what has been bargained. We represent columnists all the way down to copy clerks. The idea, and he [Peretti] said it flat out, that it would affect quality is troubling. I’m not sure what he thinks he is doing by himself that will dictate quality. The only thing we ask on hiring and firing is that there is a legitimate reason for termination. It’s why we have ‘just cause” provisions in contracts. Our folks generally are the ones who are clamoring for something to be done about a bad employee or stealing other people’s work.
We’re a community that cares. A broad community of professionals who care about quality, in many cases more than the owners. We’d like to see better news content on the web. We want good journalism even if it’s opinion journalism with a point of view. Just get your facts right. We take that seriously. There could be higher standards on the web for some sites that call themselves news sites.
Give me examples of your membership, the sorts of jobs and where around the country. How diverse, jobs-wise, is it?
We still represent columnists at most places….San Francisco Chronicle, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Pioneer Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch …and digital people and graphic artists. That’s true at The Washington Post and Post Digital, Seattle Times, Boston Globe…Reporters and desk people just about everywhere. We represent about 300 separate bargaining units, including broadcast units in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.
What about the notion that younger workers of all sorts are simply more suspicious of larger institutions, be they the government, organized religion, unions, you name it?
I believe that’s true. Younger people are leery, there’s a certain cynicism, and we fight against it. We think that’s a real enemy. All we can do is help them come together and build their own community. When we explain we’re democratic and ground-up, they seem to understand that. It may surprise us that one group of workers is concerned about parking, or maybe security when they leave the building, or byline protection so they have the right to pull a byline. Many of them started very young in start-up environments where there were Foosball tables and espresso machines and free food, but not much else. As publications mature, expectations have risen and workers decide if they want to stay in communities and have a family. You can’t sleep on your parents’ couch forever.
At some point you want to join the real world of commerce. And as revenues flow to these new places, workers want to participate in that. We are careful in not going to start-up groups and making promises. We say we can’t assure you’ll be paid like those at The New York Times. We have some nonprofits and small internet operations, like Truthout, and some very big organizations.
On the surface, some of these new places seem very alluring. There are a lot of smart people, real energy, imagination and, yes, nice office space, maybe free food, the espresso machines, venture capital money coming in. It’s not the West Virginia coalmines of old. What do you tell somebody?
If they think a union will get in the employer’s face, they won’t be looking for us. If they understand we represent workplace democracy, they get that. They want fairness. A lot of young people are going into journalism knowing there are a lot of troubles and generally because they have high standards in the first place. Yes, their expectations are being raised and those growing expectations will continue. People used to think they would just vote with their feet, and just go to a new place if they didn’t like where they were. We’re saying to stay where you are and, with colleagues, make it a better place. It’s about working together.
You’ve been doing a lot of negotiating amid decline in recent years, specifically print properties with sharply falling revenues. What are the challenges now with new operations, which are mostly privately held and whose books you don’t necessarily know much about. Does one assume they’re making money?
Obviously, with privately held stuff, we have previously worked with some such operations, such as Digital First Media. It is hard to assess what a place is worth and its profitability. But everybody wants to know what are the revenues and our share of the pie—the traditional approach to bargaining. We try to work with management to understand the real environment. Some owners are willing to work with us on business models since they themselves are uncertain where things are going. In Portland, Maine, for several years we had the ESOP, now defunct.
It’s a precarious world. If people want good content, it’s got to be paid for. Workers care about their publications. We care about the business models and work closely with publishers when they’re not successful. All of journalism trying to determine what are the right business models.
When it comes to new media, especially the digital operations, what are the professional issues of relevance to you? And how can a union possibly assist someone in dealing with them? Do they involve the very change in the definition of the work day, which now seems to be 24-7, a far cry from when we both started and there were clear lines between a normal work day and paid overtime? Yes, you worked hard, at times late into the night and on weekends, but there were demarcations.
First of all, there is always an issue whether or not people are satisfied with their current situation. If something changes with their own life, can they keep it up at work? There is the 24-hour news cycle, and people wanting you to be visible all the time. There are issues of fact checking and assuring the organization has some ability to review content. People want to see their names in print and attached to quality. We work with organizations whose people don’t seem to have any issues with hours and overtime.
But I think it’s not sustainable and can’t be a situation where employers just throw out older workers and bring in younger ones. We don’t tell them you have to get an eight-hour day but can help with a number of things and explain what current hours are with overtime and try to control the day to some degree. We have bargained callback and on-call language. The idea that somebody will continue to work all his waking hours is not sustainable. If owners are doing well, workers will say let’s get a bit more reasonable.