Point / Counterpoint

(Mark Baldwin, editor of the Rockford Register Star, recently asserted in an email to employees, alleging that, by no longer agreeing to total discretion by the employer in hiring decisions as we bargain, the United Media Guild was now acting in a way which indicates it has no regard for quality journalism. The following is a response to that charge by UMG Business Representative Shannon Duffy.)

Since purchasing the Rockford Register Star, GateHouse Media has fired dozens of hardworking employees.  As a result, loyal readers have witnessed this still-profitable newspaper grow smaller and thinner, with fewer and fewer bylines.  Those profits, if you were wondering, are not paid to the remaining employees who now pull double, or even triple, duty.  No, those dollars are siphoned out of Rockford and sent to midtown Manhattan, where they are given away as corporate bonuses for top executives and quarterly dividends to shareholders.  That’s the way it is when your company is owned by a bunch of out-of-town hedge fund operators – there’s no loyalty to the local operation or the local population; all the money flows upward and away.

In 2013, after six years without raises, newsroom employees of the Register Star organized and joined a union, the United Media Guild – CWA.  Since then, the union and GateHouse have been bargaining over terms and conditions of employment and, like before, the number of employees continued to fall.  Many more people have departed and the newsroom, indeed the entire paper, has become a shadow of its former self.  On some rare occasions, GateHouse would actually hire someone but that person would often leave because the salary he or she was being paid was such a paltry sum.  This is what has been happening and it is in this context that the United Media Guild has informed GateHouse Media of our demand to bargain over new hires from this point forward (something we can assert under labor law because the parties are still negotiating an initial contract).  

Suddenly GateHouse is up in arms about the having to negotiate over job openings in the newsroom!  We would very much like to know (and we imagine the readers would too) where any kind of outrage over newsroom jobs has been for the last six years.  Year after year, employees asked for some kind of help, only to have their pleas fall on deaf ears; the corporate overlords had to get their cut and there sure didn’t seem to be any rush about hiring until the Guild notified management that we demanded to negotiate over it.  We are surprised that an employer which guts its staff like a fish and which only occasionally replaces workers – and only with those willing to work for the lowest possible wage – would have the temerity to claim that it is doing so in the name of quality journalism.  Wow.  Just. . . wow.

Now let’s be clear about one thing:  quality journalism is a noble goal.  Our union believes in it; our union was founded on it (by actual journalists, btw, not hedge fund operators).  But we have some very real concerns about the Register Star’s starting wages.  Obviously, there are many young journalists just starting out who will work for less than what an experienced journalist is making.  But when the starting wage is ridiculously low, and then followed by year after year without a wage increase, those young journalists start looking elsewhere and soon depart.  And the entire process gets repeated.  And repeated.

The reason the Guild wants to bargain over new hires – and the reason we have requested information that local management has called “a filibuster, unproductive” and “wasteful” – is so we can determine current industry standards for similarly sized papers and negotiate a starting salary at the Register Star that is in that ballpark.  We may be able to secure some higher starting salaries, and, should we be successful, it might mean that NEWLY HIRED EMPLOYEES WILL STICK AROUND!  The Guild contends that hiring someone in such desperate need of a job that they will accept a salary that makes it difficult for them to live in your city is not a good business plan.  Anyone should be able to predict how that will end.

It should also be pointed out that recently-hired workers aren’t the only ones leaving the paper.  Seasoned veterans have departed in sizable numbers as well.  And with all that going on, installing a revolving door in your workplace for new hires to come in and go right back out again is not the way to ensure a paper has continuity or is able to preserve the institutional memory it must have to serve the community it covers.  And it is hardly the way to stand up for quality journalism.

NLRB investigates new charges of unfair labor practices at the Rockford Register Star

The National Labor Relations Board will have a field investigator in Rockford this week to probe management actions at the Register Star.

The United Media Guild believes Register Star managers are harassing unit chair Max Gersh due to his union activities. It filed still another complaint with the NLRB, prompting a new investigation.

Once again the newspaper unfairly singled out Gersh for disciplinary action in the midst of negotiations for a first contract at the Register Star.

Earlier the NLRB found that the Register Star committed unfair labor practices relating to Gersh, the scheduling the photography department and the threatened outscourcing of all photography work.

The Register Star’s parent company, GateHouse Media, contested that ruling. The NLRB will hold a hearing on that matter in Peoria next month.

GateHouse Media is willing to spend thousands of dollars defending these allegations, but the company is unwilling to offer raises to employees who have been working under perpetual wage freezes.

NLRB charges GateHouse Media with labor law violations at Rockford Register Star

The National Labor Relations Board has charged GateHouse Media Illinois Holdings Inc. with multiple violations of the National Labor Relations Act for management actions at the Rockford Register Star.

The NLRB investigated a complaint filed by the United Media Guild and found merit on several points:

  • GateHouse retaliated against our members after the UMG objected to unilateral changes to how photographers were to be scheduled. By labor law, such changes must be negotiated due to the status quo protections for working conditions during a initial contract negotiation. When the UMG would not agree to the changes, the NLRB charged that the newspaper “threatened employees and announced that it would change its policy regarding the ability of employees to alter schedules.”
  • GateHouse took that action in a letter to employees, the NLRB charged, “in order to undermine the (UMG)’s status as the employees’ bargaining representative.”
  • At the bargaining table GateHouse subsequently proposed that it have the right to outsource all photography-related work. The NLRB charged the company with doing so “because the employees . . . formed, joined and assisted the Union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees in these activities.”
  • By doing so, GateHouse “has failed and refused to bargain in good faith with the Union as the exclusive collective-bargaining representative of the Unit.”

The NLRB proposed remedies to settle these charges, but GateHouse Media declined. A company that steadfastly refuses to end its seven-year wage freeze will have no trouble running up a big legal bill defending itself in this case.

A hearing on these charges is scheduled for Feb. 10, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. in Peoria.

In the meantime, the NLRB will begin investigating a new UMG complaint about GateHouse actions in Rockford. In our filing we argue that the newspaper has twice singled out unit chair Max Gersh for disciplinary action because of his union activities.

New Media Investment Group/GateHouse Media keeps buying, slashing newspaper properties

The vulture capitalists at New Media Investment Group/GateHouse Media are at again.

The same folks who built the GateHouse Media empire — before running it into bankruptcy and blowing through $1 billion in debt — are building an even bigger media empire. In their latest move, the company bought the Halifax Media Group for $280 million.

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, in particular, will be a huge addition for the company. It will help New Media/GateHouse to control much of Massachusetts outside of Boston.

Although Halifax has been a relentless cost-cutter, this acquisition could cost even more journalists their jobs due to the inevitable consolidation of Halifax and New Media/GateHouse operations. New Media/GateHouse will continue outsourcing local jobs to its central design house in Austin, Texas.

While the Halifax deal was going down, long-time Gatehouse executive Brad Dennison abruptly resigned his post as Senior Vice President of Publishing.

Dennison supported quality journalism on his watch and made some outstanding managerial hires. Earlier this year he brokered a peaceful contract extension with our members at the Peoria Journal Star — a deal which allowed the newspaper to keep its copy desk through the length of the extension.

The United Media Guild was sorry to see him leave the company. There was no doubting Dennison’s passion for the media business. With Dennison gone, we’re guessing the company will become even more committed to funneling money out of its markets at the expense of good journalism and community service.

So we’re advising the folks working at Halifax properties to be wary of the happytalk GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis offered up to employees:

Your reputation for journalistic excellence is inspiring to us; the Pulitzer Prize winning series in Tuscaloosa and Sarasota set a high bar. We also believe that the strength of your brands will support and add depth to our community publishing model. We look forward to partnering with you to leverage our respective strengths, so that together, we may continue our commitment to community news and service.

With this acquisition, we will operate newspapers and associated websites across 31 states in over 400 markets. We are committed to investing in our markets; recent research initiatives are informing changes to our local news products, both print and digital. We launched Propel Marketing, our fast growing digital marketing services agency, to provide a broader range of solutions for our small and mid-size business customers.

I’m certain you have many questions about benefits and the transition process; we will provide more information over the coming weeks. There is also much to share on programs and resources we can provide and collaborate on. Prior to completing the purchase, we expect to engage with your senior management team as we think about the transition and evaluate current priorities, trends and ideas.

We’re looking forward to working together!

Until you’re laid off or you quit in exasperation, that is.

Check out some recent comments former GateHouse employees left on the Glassdoor website:

“Pay is below industry standards, especially for location. Lots of turnover, low morale. Directives from national corporate are tone-deaf to regional consumers, workload of staff. Equipment and technology embarrassingly inadequate, outdated.”

“This is a turn and burn place. Everybody comes and leaves like crazy. They do not give raises and will treat you like nothing at all. The do not care at all about you. They have products that do not work and would rather sell to new customers than retain old ones. I have actually seen high ups from this company lie under oath to protect the profits of this company.”

“Many employees will do everything it takes to get their jobs done, even when they are visibly given too much to do (as the company continually cuts positions). They take their work home. They blur the lines for hours worked overtime, because management will harass them if they log any overtime hours.”

Rockford Register Star journalists get no raises, but their publisher gets promoted

Our members at the Rockford Register Star and Freeport Journal-Standard did a marvelous job advancing the career of publisher Josh Trust.

GateHouse Media Senior Vice President Brad Dennison announced that Trust is moving up to Division Vice President of Community East. In a memo to employees, Dennison said Trust “led a low-performing property in difficult market to one of our best.”

Dennison also noted that “Rockford’s YTD digital marketing services revenue accounts for more than a third of the Large Daily’s production.”

And how have been Register-Star employees been rewarded for that business success? With the staff reductions and eternal wage freezes Trust imposed.

He generated strong cash flow from Rockford with ruthless cost-cutting. He demoralized the staff and inspired them to join the United Media Guild — despite his intense anti-union campaign.

Now Trust moves on to greener pastures, leaving Rockford and Freeport with stripped-down news operations. GateHouse keeps sucking money out of the region to fuel further acquisitions by its parent company, New Media Investment Group, and pay dividends to shareholders.

The United Media Guild will continue fighting for a first contract that rewards our Register Star and Journal-Standard members for this success. UMG will continue supporting the journalists who strive to produce high-quality newspapers and digital products for this region.

Frozen wages forces GateHouse journalist to moonlight

Dean Olsen is a great reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield. We’re sure that he is a great employee at McDonald’s, too, where he has to work on the weekends to supplement his GateHouse income.

GateHouse newsrooms haven’t seen a raise in seven years.

Rockford Register Star journalists can sympathize with Olsen. Many members of our unit are also moonlighting as they haven’t raises either.

Read about Dean’s dilemma here.