After 136 Years, L.A. Times Journalists Win Their Union
Journalists at the L.A. Times on January 19 received the news we had long awaited—with a landslide of 85 percent, the staff voted to unionize and join the NewsGuild, an affiliate of the Communications Workers.
While most of the largest newsrooms in the country are already unionized with the NewsGuild—including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, and Reuters—the L.A. Times had fended off a union for 136 years, due largely to the vehement anti-labor views of its first publisher, General Harrison Gray Otis, and his successors, the Chandler family.
But times have changed. After five publishers in five years, and an unpopular editor who staffers feared would cut jobs, the time was right to organize.
Staffers had a long list of grievances, including years without raises, rising health care costs, and changes in the time-off policy. Many felt management fostered a culture of sexism and discrimination, reflected in the treatment and wages of people of color and women in the newsroom.
Talented journalists, sick of mismanagement and masthead changes, were leaving in droves. And there was a sense that the Times was under attack by its own leaders, who planned to reorganize the newsroom, shift work to freelancers or contractors, and lay off staff.
Of course we wanted better pay, better benefits, and more protections. But what we really wanted was to stop the flight of talent and protect the paper as a civic institution.
NO BETTER TIME
In 2016, after the Times’ parent company Tronc made unilateral changes to our vacation policy and threatened to shift jobs away from the newsroom, a group of us began discussing how to have a greater say in our future.
We reached out to the NewsGuild and began holding small organizing meetings. By last summer our organizing committee included 40 people, who set to work reaching out to colleagues—setting up one-on-ones over coffee or drinks, after work and on the weekends. We used Google spreadsheets to keep track of the nearly 350 staffers in our bargaining unit.
In October, management got wind of our campaign. We had no choice but to go public. Organizers drafted a letter to the newsroom, formally announcing our organizing drive. We put a copy on everyone’s desk first thing one morning. Shortly thereafter, the Organizing Committee signed our 40 names to a second letter encouraging co-workers to join our effort.
In the weeks that followed, we distributed signs and L.A Times Guild buttons to our colleagues. For some our large “Union Yes” signs were daunting at first, so we used slogans like “Support Local Journalism” instead. But after a few weeks, the newsroom was plastered in “Union Yes” signs—a beautiful sight to see at the L.A. Times, of all places.
DON'T MESS WITH THE PRESS
After the drive went public, Tronc began its highly scripted union-busting campaign.
Anti-union fliers were handed out. Emails from editors flooded our inboxes. Managers argued that NewsGuild journalists were no better off than we were, and that unionization could lead to cuts.
But as journalists, we’re used to digging. We investigate city, state, and federal officials to hold them accountable—why wouldn’t we do the same for our own newsroom leaders?
“No one was going to look out for us except ourselves,” said Marina Levario, a features copy editor. We knew our unionized colleagues were better off than we were. We read their contracts and called them ourselves to confirm the facts.
We also looked at Tronc’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings and exposed executives’ spending habits. A private jet for chairman and shareholder Michael Ferro was costing the company $8,500 an hour, and a whopping $4.6 million to operate in less than two years.
CEO Justin Dearborn had received a staggering $8.1 million in total compensation in 2016. And in December, just two weeks before our scheduled election, we discovered that Tronc had awarded its chairman a $5 million-per-year “consulting agreement.”
Our reporting confirmed what staffers already knew: The money was there, but executives were spending it on themselves and looting the L.A. Times.
To keep Tronc in the public spotlight, we ramped up our outreach to national news outlets. On our website, latguild.com, we posted campaign updates, union FAQs, and solidarity photos from NewsGuild journalists from across the country.
A growing Twitter following helped show staffers that our readers really do root for us. Hundreds tweeted at Tronc executives, and 350 actually subscribed to the Times to show their support.
EMBOLDENED TO SPEAK OUT
The union campaign changed the newsroom atmosphere dramatically. Our industry faces many challenges, but journalists feeling powerless doesn’t have to be one.
“Instead of being afraid for our futures, we’re optimistic about helping steer the Times in a better direction,” said Sue Worrell, a news copy editor. “We trust and genuinely care about colleagues we didn’t even know a few months ago.”
When news broke that our publisher Ross Levinsohn had previously been accused of creating a hostile workplace for women and LGBTQ people, more than 200 of us signed a letter to Tronc’s board of directors calling for his ouster.
When the editor-in-chief suspended a popular editor without explanation, journalists in her department issued a public statement supporting her and demanding her reinstatement.
“There is a sense of relief and confidence that we derive from the union, because we’re clearly a voice now,” said Maya Lau, a reporter covering the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and a lead organizer on the campaign. “The union movement gave the newsroom a vocabulary to challenge things that weren’t working here.”
Days after the union vote was certified, Tronc replaced Editor-in-Chief Lewis D’Vorkin after just four months on the job. Soon after that, the company announced it had agreed to sell the Times to billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. Staffers are hopeful that the return to local ownership will lead to some stability, and that Soon-Shiong will invest in the journalists who make the Times what it is. We’ve just elected unit officers and are eager to begin negotiations.
Kristina Bui is a copy editor and vice chair of the L.A. Times Guild. Nastaran Mohit is the organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York.