Arizona Republic Management Warns Staffers Of Benefits Loss If They Unionize

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 5:32pm
Updated: Thursday, October 10, 2019 - 11:16am

The management at the state's largest newspaper is warning staffers that any move to unionize actually could lose them some of their current benefits.

"Bargaining remains a two-way street," reads the memo memo distributed in the past week in newsroom of the Arizona Republic. And what that means, it says, is that as much as the proposed NewsGuild unit can make demands, "the company can make demands for concessions as well."

The memo — there is no name of an author on it — also suggests to those who might be tempted to vote to unionize that they could be sold out by the leaders of the movement who are "going to have the loudest voice."

"Do you trust them with your future — because if you vote for the Guild, that is what you'll be doing," it reads.

The memo comes ahead of Thursday's scheduled vote among more than 100 staffers of whether to form a union. Management also has brought in staff from other papers in the Gannett chain to talk about their own experiences at union papers.

It may also be a sign that Republic and Gannett executives are worried: pro-organization forces have shown strength, having submitted cards seeking an election from more than 70% of those eligible to vote.

But Richard Ruelas, one of the pro-union leaders, said union supporters have their own counter message to the warnings of management of lost benefits. The veteran writer — he has been with Gannett for 25 years — said things could hardly be worse if there is no organization to represent newsroom interests.

And Ruelas said even if staffers trust Gannett and the current crop of Republic executives to treat them well, that hardly provides any security for the next round of layoffs.

Key to that is the planned takeover of the Gannett empire and its more than 100 publications nationwide by GateHouse Media in at deal worth about $1.4 billion. The combined organization, which will operate under the Gannett name, will have more than 260 daily newspapers and more than 300 weeklies.

More to the point is that officials of both companies have argued they can cut costs by as much as $300 million.

Greg Burton, the Republic's executive editor, would not comment about the efforts by his newsroom to organize or the tactics being used by management to deter them from voting for a union. And several Republic staffers have said it's not the current management they fear.

"Who knows who's going to be able to make the decision in a few months, if it's these same executives or a new batch," Ruelas said. He said that, rather than evaluating the work done by current staffers, they may "just see a name and a number and decide that number's a little big."

Ruelas dismissed the company's argument that contract negotiations actually could end up with things being worse than they are now — or would be post merger.

"Right now we are naked to whatever that risk is," he said. "This would provide a modicum of protection."

In fact, the union effort essentially is built on the premise that there will be layoffs — and the best that workers can do is organize to get some protections in writing.

One poster child for union organizers is the Detroit Free Press, a unionized Gannett paper.

Its contract, according to supporters of the NewsGuild, is 10 days of severance for each year of service, with a maximum of 40 weeks.

By contrast, they said, severance at non-union Gannett papers was five days for each year worked with a 26-week maximum, with similar benefits available to some GateHouse workers.

The Detroit contract also provide 30 days' notice before layoffs, something that does not exist in non-union Gannett papers.

Ruelas said that management, in an effort to quash a union, has provided a mixed message to staffers.

"They've been talking to us about how valued we are as workers, how much journalism is the lifeblood of the organization and they really value us," he said. "I think what we're pretty much asking is to formalize that honor and respect into a contract."

Then there are the messages warning workers of potential lost benefits and asking employees if they really trust those pushing for the union.

"I would hope that this is a scare tactic and they will actually come to us with a position of respect as we sit down at the table if we end up winning on Thursday," Ruelas said.

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