The two surviving photographers at the Rockford Register Star are under siege.
During the latest round of bargaining with the United Media Guild for a first contract at these newspapers, the company submitted a proposal that would allow it to outsource photography.
The Register Star and Journal-Standard already make extensive use of free-lancers. This proposal would allow the company to eliminate the remaining staff positions.
This is not an idle GateHouse threat. After the Dow Jones Local Media Group came under GateHouse Media control, that chain’s flagship newspaper, the Middletown Times Herald-Record, laid off all four of its photographers so it could exclusively use free-lancers.
We believe that eliminating staff photographers hampers the ability of newsrooms to gather and present compelling content. GateHouse Media/New Media Investment Group newspapers are in the business of monetizing compelling content.
Diminishing the product in the name of cost-cutting and “flexibility” is a terrible idea.
In Rockford’s case, the company’s opening contract proposal on October 1, 2013, included language giving it the unfettered right to outsource any work — including photography — at any time.
So why did it come back on July 8 and specifically propose the photographer outsourcing?
This all goes back to a management decision made earlier this year. The company wants to rotate the two photographers back and forth between day shifts and night shifts.
That rotation would change the terms and conditions of employment at the newspaper — a change that must be negotiated with the union. (Employees have certain “status quo” workplace protections while bargaining for a first contract.)
The UMG has negotiated with the company on this matter but failed to reach an agreement. The company responded by lashing out at the photographers in correspondence with newsroom employees.
It announced that because of the union refused to grant the company the flexibility it seeks, it would no longer grant employees scheduling flexibility to address periodic personal needs.
That led the UMG to filed a three-pronged charge with the National Labor Relations Board. The investigation is underway.
Here are the specifics of the Unfair Labor Practice charge:
“On our about June 24, 2014, the above-named employer has interfered with, restrained and coerced its employees by threatening to change its policy regarding the ability of all employees to alter their schedules because the Union did not permit the Employer to unilaterally change the photographers’ schedule.
“On or about June 24, 2014, the above-named employer has discriminated against Photographers Max Gersh and Brent Lewis by announcing to all employees that it was changing its policy regarding the ability of all employees to alter their schedules because the Union did not permit the Employer to unilaterally change photographers’ schedule.
“On or about June 24, 2014, the above-named employer has failed to bargain collectively and in good faith with the United Media Guild Local 36047 by dealing directly with employees and unilaterally changing their terms and conditions of employment when it changed its policy regarding the ability of all employees to alter their schedule.”
As the UMG was filing that ULP charge, the Register Star took the addition step of disciplining Gersh for alleged insubordination. (In our view, Max raised legitimate concerns about whether an assignment could violate the principles of photography ethics.)
And then came the proposal to outsource the department.
So to recap, here is what happened on the photography front:
- The company to wanted to rotate the two photographers without offering a compelling reason why the change was needed.
- The UMG informed the company it would have to negotiate that change.
- We failed to reached an agreement on that issue during the next negotiating session.
- The company lashed back through direct correspondence with the rest of our members.
- The UMG filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge after consulting with the national Guild office and our attorneys.
- The company disciplined Max Gersh for alleged insubordination.
- The company proposed to outsource photography.
Employees at the Rockford Register Star and Freeport Journal-Standard want to produce the best possible product in print and through all the digital platforms. They realize the critical role these institutions play in their communities. That is a big reason why they voted to request representation from the UMG.
This fight to retain staff photographers underscores why newsrooms need Guild representation. If we don’t fight to protect the quality of our work and the value of our craft, who will?