(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.