Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

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After 136 Years, L.A. Times Reporters Decide Whether to Unionize

  • Newsroom employees weigh pros, cons of aligning with NewsGuild
  • Parent Tronc warns ‘yea’ vote won’t solve industry’s woes

Hundreds of Los Angeles Times newsroom staffers begin voting Thursday on whether to unionize in what could be a stinging rebuke to owner Tronc Inc.

“I’ve been here for 30 years, and the past 20 years pretty much have been continual management and ownership chaos,” said reporter Bettina Boxall, a member of the committee spearheading the drive to join the NewsGuild, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America. “We spent our careers giving other people a voice -- it’s time we had a voice.”

The effort follows successful campaigns at other outlets in the media industry, where an advertising slump has led to layoffs and stagnant wages. The union drive reflects the harsh economic climate for once-thriving big-city newspapers in the internet age, which has contributed to management turmoil at the Times.

In the past few years, Guild victories have included Law360, the Daily Beast and the Guardian. The Writers Guild of America East won recognition at outlets including the Huffington Post, Gizmodo Media Group and Vice Media. Overall, union membership in the U.S. fell to less than 11 percent of the workforce in 2016, down from 28 percent a half century ago.

Tronc, which also owns the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other publications, reiterated its opposition to the union in a statement Wednesday.

“We believe that by working together, rather than through a third party, we can build on the L.A. Times’ heritage and trust with readers,” Marisa Kollias, a spokeswoman, said in an email.

Revolving Doors

Like other newspapers, the Times has suffered as print ads and readership shriveled. But it’s also experienced internal tumult that may have contributed to an even steeper decline.

Controlled for much of its 136 years by the Chandler family, the newspaper was sold in 2000 to Tribune Co., which was taken over by billionaire Sam Zell in 2007. Debt drove the parent into bankruptcy shortly after, emerged in 2012 and spun off Tribune Publishing in 2014. Four years later Chicago investor Michael Ferro gained control of Tribune Publishing and renamed it Tronc -- for Tribune Online Content.

Last year, Tronc named Ross Levinsohn, a former Fox and Yahoo executive, as publisher of the Times, the fifth in five years. He’s said he wants to bolster the Times’ entertainment coverage to increase subscribers.

Daily circulation totals 273,752, a fraction of the April 1990 peak of 1.23 million, while Sunday has declined to 581,853 from 1.51 million. The newspaper has also fallen far behind the New York Times and Washington Post in digital subscriber growth.

Executive Pay

Union activists at the Times say concern about Tronc’s agenda has helped fuel their year-old effort, which they argue can address pay and benefit worries, safeguard journalistic integrity and serve as a check on management. The union has complained about a $5 million-a-year consulting agreement Tronc signed in December with Ferro’s Merrick Ventures.

On its website for employees, Tronc said a union couldn’t guarantee raises and won’t give workers any say over executive pay issues.

“We have argued that unionization will not and cannot address our industry’s extremely difficult business conditions,” Jim Kirk, the newspaper’s interim executive editor, and Lewis D’Vorkin, editor-in-chief, told employees in a Jan. 2 email reviewed by Bloomberg News.

Mandatory Meetings

Along with emails, web pages and video, employees say Tronc management has used mandatory meetings to make the case against the union. Under federal law, companies aren’t allowed to threaten employees with punishment for unionizing, but have leeway to make negative predictions about the consequences.

“With a newly formed union, all terms and conditions are up for negotiation and the union may or may not be able to negotiate the same salary and benefits you currently receive,” the company says at latfacts.com. Unionization could mean strikes, dues and a loss of flexibility to “put the story first,” management said.

To the Polls

Pro-Guild leaders in the newsroom said such messages haven’t swayed their co-workers and point to more successful union publications, like the New York Times and Washington Post, now owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

“We’re the only newspaper in our league that does not have collective bargaining rights, that does not have the guaranteed voice in our affairs that a guild contract gets you,” said investigative reporter Paul Pringle.

The election will be administered by the National Labor Relations Board. While most of the roughly 380 covered employees are expected to vote Thursday, ballots aren’t slated to be counted until Jan. 19, after eligible workers have had the opportunity to vote by mail.

Either side could contest the result by claiming misconduct tainted the outcome. If management wins after results are certified by the NLRB, the union can’t petition for another election for a year. If the union wins, the company is required to bargain with the Guild over a first contract -- a process that can be lengthy and contentious in its own right.

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