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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Low Pay and No Say: Why Seattle Journalists Are Unionizing

Journalists generally are quirky characters. I know because I am one, I married one, and I have worked among them for decades. If you also know journalists, you’ll probably agree that they don’t seem the most likely workers to unionize.

They tend to see themselves as creatives, closer in vocation to artists than to the Teamsters or United Mine Workers. They are anti-authoritarian and don’t consider most editors to be smarter or wiser or more talented. They are passionate about their work, embrace high standards, and believe they are providing an essential public service. They push for transparency not only in the doings of the City Council or in Olympia, but expect it in their own newsrooms. They do the work despite being paid less than they would make in other communications sectors like public relations, despite the often irregular and crazy hours and despite the stress of reporting on violence, disaster and tragedy.

All of this makes journalists vulnerable to being exploited. Which is why journalists aren’t that different from other workers and have a long history of unionizing. As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, the reasons reporters turn to unions haven’t changed much in 80 years. What has changed is that after newspaper closings had weakened unions, digital outlets are breathing new momentum into them. Millennials don’t like low pay and no say any more than the ink stained wretches of the last century.

I belonged to the Wire Service Guild when I worked for the Associated Press, and later for the NewsGuild when I worked at Time Inc. More recently, I was a member of SEIU when adjunct professors unionized at Georgetown University. Each of these unions helped establish fair pay levels and much more, although at times I worried that they lacked the kind of clout with employers that, historically, a variety of unions have been able to wield. What the unions did offer, along with improved working conditions, was a sense of solidarity. We journalists might be quirky and creative, but we were in this together. It’s good to see today’s younger journalists also embracing that kind of solidarity.

The New Republic reported that over the past four years unions have been voted in at VICE, Salon, HuffPost, MTV News, Slate, Law 360, Talking Points Memo, Pitchfork, The Daily Beast, The Intercept, Fast Company, Thrillist, and Refinery29, among others. The article also cited a new push for unions at legacy media with The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker and The New Republic organizing under the NewsGuild last year. Meanwhile, Digiday reported that in the first half of 2019 alone, publications including Wirecutter, BuzzFeed News, Quartz and The Ringer all announced they’d formed unions.

One of the latest examples is Crosscut/KCTS, where contract negotiations started October 1. “We wanted to have a seat at the table,” says Jen Dev, a video producer and member of the Crosscut bargaining team. “A lot of times management can be very removed from newsroom operations. Some decisions have been made where journalists in the newsroom say it’s a terrible idea, but we have no say in the matter. Unionizing is a way to say that you may not listen to one of us, but together unified we have a voice.”

Employees at Crosscut/KCTS 9, the digital news site and PBS affiliate owned by Cascade Public Media, voted in July to join the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, part of the NewsGuild-CWA which was established in 1933. The union has long represented Seattle Times journalists, where negotiations continue after the current contract expired March 31. Meanwhile KUOW ‘s newsroom last year joined AFTRA-SAG, a union that represents radio and TV journalists (and which I joined during a stint at KOIN-TV in Portland).

Union supporters point out that it costs as much or more to live in Seattle compared to Los Angeles, but pay for reporters still runs lower here

“You are not going to have a robust media market if people can’t afford to be journalists,” says Dev.  “Journalists care about the work and the organization and are willing to put up with long hours and low pay because they are really dedicated. Our profession is all consuming. When you give up that much of your life, you should be compensated accordingly.”

Pay, however, isn’t the only issue driving unionization. As labor lawyer Dmitri Iglitzin points out: “Unionization is almost always about respect, not wages and benefits. Workers unionize when they feel that they are being disrespected and their interests are being disregarded by management.”

While managements often argue that it is harder to reward individual creativity when unions put pay on an equalized, yearly-increase basis, Iglitzin counters that:  “This is why unions are the most radical concept in the U.S., because our culture is all about the individual, not the group. The idea that individual workers would to any extent be willing to subordinate their chance of maximizing their own rewards to the goal of improving life overall for the group is, frankly, deeply un-American.  We are a country that lionizes the Jeff Bezos’s and Bill Gates’s (and Donald Trumps) of our world, not those who work for others. It is a deeply challenging idea that we should join together as comrades and try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, not our own personal interest paramount over everything.” 

In an industry that is struggling to survive on both legacy and digital fronts, reporters know that there is little job security. Unionization at other digital outlets hasn’t prevented layoffs and closures. Forming a union didn’t save Mic or ThinkProgress. But union advocates like Dev say that at least they can negotiate with management to establish a transparent process for firings and layoffs. She says the lack of that kind of transparency has been an issue in the Crosscut/KCTS 9 newsroom: “There has been, in the past year, a pattern of abrupt firings in the Crosscut newsroom (three so far since I started in October 2018) which has led to a lot of anxiety amongst staff.”

The KUOW newsroom also sought and won more transparency in the three-year contract it ratified May 31. In addition to improving pay and benefits, the contract, which took effect July 1, provides clear procedures for grievances and layoffs, and outlines steps management needs to take before making drastic changes, according to shop steward Paige Browning. “First and foremost we wanted to make sure we were at the table in deciding the future of the station,” says Browning, “and with  unionization we are closer to doing that.”

“Journalists are independent, and a lot of people in our shop at the beginning said they didn’t want to get to the point of needing to join a union,” adds Browning, a newscaster and reporter. “Concerns came to more of a head over the last few years inspired by the extreme cost of living in Seattle and seeing how the journalism industry was changing so quickly and that we wanted to make sure journalists had a voice in the future direction of the station.”

At Crosscut/KCTS, the newsroom exercised its newly united voice when management fired managing editor Florangela Davila shortly after the unionization vote. In response, the union sent a note to management expressing concerns. “We write today in support of our former managing editor Florangela Davila, who was let go from Crosscut last week. The news landed hard on members of our newsroom, and we felt compelled to speak out,” the note said. It went on to add: “we find the manner of Florangela’s sudden dismissal disconcerting. Even before this incident, a pattern of firings without warning played a key role in the newsroom’s decision to unionize.”

The company said  Davila’s firing was not related to any union activity and issued a tweet to say “Cascade Public Media parted ways with Florangela Davila due to differences in the strategic outlook in the newsroom.”

Dev says the letter protesting Davila’s dismissal is an example of how forming the union already has made a difference at Crosscut/KCTS. “Just through the unionization process, the newsroom has really come together. It’s given us a chance to discuss together what we love about our profession and this organization in particular and ways we could improve it. Everybody is feeling a bit more ownership of the newsroom.”

Linda Kramer Jenning
Linda Kramer Jenning is an independent journalist who moved to Bainbridge Island after several decades reporting from Washington, D.C. She taught journalism at Georgetown University and is former Washington editor of Glamour.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thoughtful and well-reported piece. Especially since there are only a couple of locally owned news operations left in Seattle, both legacy /digital (the Stranger and the Seattle Times…not one broadcaster.

  2. It’ll be interesting to see whether unionization makes much difference in the economic circumstances and worker protections for local journalists. Seems to me that so far the jury is still out on that question.

  3. So far, the marriage of Crosscut with KCTS has been mutually beneficial, but there has been a lot of turnover in the editors’ chairs. I gather that the main problem has been meshing a “print” culture with broadcast, and the television station is still woefully lacking in locally produced shows. The new executive editor has a broadcasting background, so the cross-fertilization may get better soon. As for empowering the newsroom, as the unionization promises, I wonder. Newsrooms are already full of outspoken people, and what Seattle media outlets most need is stronger leadership, focused on an approach that helps to bring citizens back to regular use and trust of local media.

  4. Update: Mark Baumgarten, an inside choice over two outside candidates, has been named the new Managing Editor at Crosscut. Baumgarten had been managing editor at Seattle Weekly and before that worked at Willamette Week in Portland. He has been a news editor at Crosscut for the past year or so, and is well regarded within the newsroom. He succeeds Florangela Davila, who departed recently and is now managing editor at KNKS public radio.

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