The Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom of The Arizona Republic officially announced Wednesday its journalists are taking steps to unionize the state’s paper of record to have a seat at the table as a major corporate merger looms.
Reporters, photographers, producers, columnists, copy editors and other employees have signed union authorization cards stating their desire to be voluntarily recognized or hold an election to join The NewsGuild-CWA.
On the eve of the announcement, management unleashed a campaign of intimidation and harassment, calling known union supporters into the Human Resources office individually and questioning them about their activities.
The HR director seized the work phone of Rebekah Sanders, effectively preventing her from performing her job.
The interrogations followed the release of a newsroom-wide email from the executive editor on Friday comparing union supporters to mob bosses and child molesters.
The move comes amid talks that Gannett, The Republic’s corporate owner, will merge with GateHouse Media in a $1.4 billion deal, creating one of the largest news conglomerates in the U.S. The companies say they plan to make $300 million in cuts, including more than $100 million to newspaper operations.
Already, Gannett has slashed the Republic by about 70%, from roughly 425 journalists in 2008 to about 130 today. Across the newsroom, beats that once were covered by teams of people are now manned by a single reporter in a metro area with a population larger than San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle or Minneapolis.
“A shifting media business has chipped away at our newsroom’s strength. The company’s merger with GateHouse Media likely means deeper cuts,” the Republic Guild mission statement reads.“Annual layoffs, stagnant salaries, swelling healthcare costs and high turnover weaken local journalism. Our newsroom needs a large, diverse staff to tell the stories of our community.Our newsroom needs a seat at the table.”
The Arizona Republic Guild’s slogan is: “Protect local journalism. Preserve our Republic.”
Richard Ruelas, a features reporter and 25-year veteran of the paper, said a union would give the newsroom a voice, particularly amid the impending merger.
“We can’t be sure that whatever company owns us will care about journalism. But we can work to make sure they provide some basics for journalists,” Ruelas said. “It took me a while to stop thinking about what was in this for me, and start thinking about what was in this for all of us.”
The country’s leading news organizations — including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Associated Press — have been unionized for years. A dozen Gannett newspapers are unionized, including the Indianapolis Star, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Detroit Free Press.
Republic staffers are requesting voluntary recognition from Gannett as a show of good faith.
If Gannett does not voluntarily recognize the Arizona Republic Guild, the union authorization cards, which are confidential from the company, will be filed at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board to trigger an NLRB-monitored election among Republic non-management staff members.
If a majority cast ballots in favor, the newsroom will unionize and begin working with Gannett to negotiate a first labor contract.
Rebekah L. Sanders, a consumer protection reporter, said she grew up reading the newspaper and still remembers her excitement when she joined the staff nearly 12 years ago.
“As a consumer protection reporter, I fight on behalf of readers when businesses treat them badly. Now, I am fighting on behalf of my coworkers,” she said. “I believe our hardworking newsroom deserves fair wages, affordable healthcare, decent layoff severance and a voice in the decisions being made about our future. I believe the future of local journalism depends on all of us standing up to protect our newspapers.”
“I know Arizona Republic editors have the same goal as employees: To produce strong local journalism,” Sanders continued. “But the pressures from corporate executives and Wall Street continue to lead to cuts, cuts and more cuts.”
EJ Montini, a columnist who has worked at the Republic for 29 years, said he supports the unionizing effort.
“I’ve been at the Arizona Republic for a very long time and it’s reasonable for someone to ask, ‘Why now? Why unionize after all these years?’” he said. “The union/non-union question is not about control, but about cooperation. It’s an expressed desire by journalists who live here, work here and genuinely love it here, as I do, to help the company ensure local journalism in Phoenix continues to thrive. Who better to know?”
“Still, I understand if some of those on the staff disagree,” Montini added. “It boils down to this. If you’re interested in having a say about some aspects of your personal and professional life over which you currently have no say — things like salary, benefits, insurance and more — a union provides that. It doesn’t come with a guarantee, of course. But it affords a voice.”
The organization’s mission statement identifies a broad swath of newsroom staffers involved in the effort.
“We are long-serving veterans and rookies in our first jobs. We come from Arizona and around the country and call this state our home. We want The Arizona Republic to stand strong for 129 more years.”