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Friday, May 2, 2008

Newspaper Union Stirring to Life in the East Bay

Posted By on Fri, May 2, 2008 at 2:35 PM

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By John Geluardi

East Bay newspaper employees who have been alarmed at the declining quality of journalism took responsibility for their own futures on Friday by asking to be formally recognized as a union.

Union organizers launched their campaign in October and after seven months of after-work meetings, thousands of e-mails and a lot of beer drinking, they were able to get a strong majority of the 250 eligible employees to sign guild cards. If the union is finalized by ballot, the organizers will have succeeded in unionizing the largest newspaper chain in the Bay Area, which includes the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune and The Argus.

Organizers Sara Steffens and Karl Fischer, both award winning Contra Costa Times reporters, went to the Oakland office of the National Labor Relations Board to petition for formal recognition as a union. The petition will trigger an official workplace ballot, which is expected to take place some time in June.

The cluster of 11 daily newspapers and various weeklies is owned by MediaNews, the fourth largest newspaper chain in the country. Last August, when MediaNews merged its East Bay newspapers into the Bay Area News Group - East Bay, the company unceremoniously stopped recognizing a 20-year-old bargaining unit at six of its newspapers.

Newspapers across the country have been plagued with falling revenue and declining readership for years. The quality of journalism has suffered due to massive layoffs, overworked editors and shrinking coverage areas. Organizers say one of the union’s goals will be working with management to produce the best possible journalism despite troubles in the industry.

“It’s heartening to see so many of us come together, during these turbulent times saying ‘We deserve a seat at the table.’ Tough decisions need to be made, but we want to be part of the building our future,” Steffens says. “I’m incredibly proud to be part of our newsrooms today.”

An editor, who asked that his name not be used, says forming a union will add tension to a bad situation. “I might have supported the idea of a union five years ago, but now it’s just not the right thing to do,” he says. “I think it will alienate employees from managers and that’s not good at a time when we need to pull together.”

Fischer says the Contra Costa Times has had a long tradition of good will between employees and management and it will be the goal of the union to enhance that. He added that both union organizers and management took great pains to stay on the high road during the seven-month campaign and they have a shared goal of creating a quality product.

“After the merger, there was a real malaise that settled on the CCT. We were losing the things that made us a distinguished, quality newspaper,” Fischer says. “My main motivation was to try and shore up work conditions to make a more hospitable place where good journalists can come, hang up their hat and stay for a long time.”

Read more about the organizing effort here.

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John Geluardi

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