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Journalists at the Pasadena Star-News and Other Newspapers Vote to Unionize

Published on Monday, June 14, 2021 | 5:00 am
 

Journalists at 11 daily newspapers in Southern California, including the Pasadena Star-News, owned by Alden Global Capital, known as the Southern California News Group (SCNG), voted overwhelmingly to form a union on Friday. The final tally was 64-19.

The new union, called the SCNG Guild, represents 140 reporters and other newsroom positions at  the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Torrance Daily Breeze, the San Bernardino Sun, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Whittier Daily News and the Redlands Daily Facts.

According to Poynter.org, the hedge fund that owns about 70 papers nationwide through its MediaNews Group, is known for purchasing papers and then slashing budgets and staff. 

Last month, Alden bought Tribune Publishing for $633 million. In the weeks leading up to the deal, Tribune journalists pleaded for someone with deep pockets to purchase the company instead, fearing deep cuts once Alden took the reins. A hotelier allegedly nearly derailed the deal but backed out after his billionaire partner pulled out after reviewing one of the newspaper’s dire financial situations.

According to an article on the Chicago Tribune website, two days after the purchase was completed the hedge fund began offering buyouts to nonunion newsroom employees. 

Buyouts are typically the last option for an employee to leave a company voluntarily and receive a severance payment, followed by the likely risk of being laid off without a severance if they don’t agree to the buyout.

“MediaNews Group and Alden Global Capital have cut our newsrooms to the bone,” the SCNG Guild wrote in a Feb. 24 statement about why they decided to unionize. “Layoffs and turnover have devastated our workforce. We face historic staffing shortages, and the exodus of journalists with decades of experience has hollowed out our newspapers. These cuts leave us less able to provide the quality product we owe our readers. We want to stave off further losses while allowing our newspapers to thrive. We want to build newsrooms with diverse voices reflecting the communities we cover.”

The new union is a unit of Media Guild of the West, a local of The NewsGuild-CWA, which represents hundreds of journalists and media workers in Southern California, Arizona and Texas, including at the Los Angeles Times, the Arizona Republic and other papers.

“This is history, folks!” the union wrote on its Twitter account in announcing the result of the vote. “SCNG Guild will now bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions for all. Wages have remained stagnant for most working at these papers. Many have gone without true raises to their pay in years, even as the cost of living in the LA area has risen. We have to fight!”

The union said they announced their intention to unionize back in February, but that “management [at SCNG] refused to voluntarily recognize us, then delayed the vote by arguing our unit should be split in two.”

According to Poynter, SCNG “argued that certain positions — copy editors, graphic artists, page designers, and social media and digital producers — should not be allowed to join the union. Those positions comprise approximately 44 people. In response, the union launched a #1Newsroom1Union campaign on social media, arguing that people in the disputed positions are also journalists and should be allowed to unionize with their colleagues who are reporters, photographers and clerks. The two sides appeared in front of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in March for a hearing, and the board ruled in the union’s favor.”

According to the SCNG Guild, this is the first time many of these papers have ever voted to unionize. However, this is not the first attempt at a union.

In the early 1990s, former Pasadena Weekly Editor and Pasadena Now Chief Copyeditor Kevin Uhrich was part of a unionization effort at the Pasadena Star-News when he was a reporter there on the city hall beat. He said he became unhappy with the management team installed by the then-new owner Toronto-based Thomson Corp.

“I became upset seeing my friends, mostly women reporters, being taken into the editor’s office after work and being berated by these overpaid pirates, some to the point of tears,” Uhrich said. “So I went to a super-secret union meeting, got involved and became one of a number of union committee leaders among Thomson’s three papers: the Pasadena Star-News, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Whittier Daily News.”

Uhrich ended up taking his case to the NLRB on 10 counts, including harassment, wiretapping employees’ phones and reading their in-house email messages on a system called Coyote. He won on all counts on behalf of all employees.

“No money was involved, mainly because I never took any time off,” he said. “I was totally into it, so there was no time lost. And I did not get sick, as one after another of my fellow leaders did.”

Uhrich said others had started dropping out, and soon he was one of only two people left pushing for the union. The company was ordered to admit its guilt and post notices about the ruling in prominent places at all three papers, which they did. 

“Unfortunately, they also did as we knew they would and came back with something the union feared but many sick of the office drama had hoped for: buyouts.”

Uhrich explained that this union effort included all employees in every department, many of them of retirement age and some having nothing to do with editorial. He strongly objected to this arrangement and lobbied with the local Guild Board to sever editorial staff from the others and act as a separate unit, but the union “never filed the required paperwork with the boys in Silver Spring, Maryland, home of the Guild, and our 70-30 approval rate flip-flopped overnight,” he said.

“What that meant was I was sunk,” he added. “Without a union, they could fire me, and I have no doubt they planned to do just that at the earliest possible moment. Also, at this particular time, the buyout deadline was drawing near. I had a good chunk on the line, so, waiting until 4 p.m. that Friday, the final hour of the final day, I took the buyout.”

Uhrich added that no media outlet reported on their unionization campaign or the NLRB victory, including the Pasadena Weekly. After leaving the Star-News, he went on to the San Gabriel Valley Edition of the L.A. Times. He also wrote news for the L.A. Reader, the L.A. Weekly and the Pasadena Weekly. He served as editor of the Pasadena Weekly from 1999, which then was owned by Times Community News, TCN, a division of the L.A. Times, to 2020.

“I’m happy for [the new union], of course,” Uhrich said. “Then again, I can’t help wondering how different things might be now had we won back then.”

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