Feb 5, 2018
The Los Angeles Times newsroom staff of writers and editors voted 248-44 on January 18 to be represented by the News Guild. It was a milestone moment – the Times newsroom has never had a union before.
In the past, journalists say that the L.A. Times owners’ deep pockets had kept the union out, by paying some of the highest salaries and best benefits in print journalism. But all that changed more than two decades ago, when the company began to squeeze much higher profits out of fewer journalists. Round after round of layoffs, buyouts and restructurings reduced the number of newsroom jobs from 1,200 to less than 400 today.
About 10 years ago, the company also stopped across-the-board annual raises. But last year, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the company took away accrued vacation time, replacing a guaranteed benefit with a policy that was unreliable and unevenly applied. “There’s a point when you’re being foolish,” said one L.A. Times journalist, “when you’re a chump for allowing this trend to continue and not demanding a voice.”
In early 2017, staffers quietly began to carry out a union organizing drive. In October, this drive was made public after a note was placed on each staffer’s desk. “A majority of the newsroom has already signed cards supporting representation by the News Guild,” the note said, “and we look forward to gathering more signatures in the weeks ahead.”
The Los Angeles Times’s parent company, a financial company called Tronc, countered the organizing drive with the usual claims that there was no money. But the union organizers showed that in reality there was a great deal of money. They showed that executive compensation at Tronc had shot up by 80 per cent over the previous year. And they exposed how corporate executives lavished tens of millions more dollars on themselves through golden parachutes for departing executives, a company jet, and big corporate extravaganzas and sporting events.
Not only did staffers repulse corporate threats of layoffs and further cuts in benefits and pay if they voted in a union, they turned the tables on management and got top managers fired! A day after the organizers announced the overwhelming vote for the union, the company was forced to announce that it was putting the foul-mouthed newspaper publisher, Ross Levinsohn, on indefinite leave, after National Public Radio revealed that Levinsohn had twice been a defendant in sexual harassment lawsuits when he worked at other companies. Ten days later, the uproar by the newspaper’s staff over secret efforts by the newspaper’s editor, Lewis D’Vorkin, to build a shadow newsroom filled with non-union journalists, forced Tronc to replace D’Vorkin also.
The journalists and editors of the Los Angeles Times have discovered that what counts is not their prestigious job or their higher education – but their ability to organize and willingness to fight.