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The Union Wave Hitting America’s Biggest Newspaper Chain

'It’s not that we’re breaking new ground here, we’re just catching up with the rest of the industry.'

The Asbury Park Press, a Gannett newspaper. (Inc magazine is not part of Gannett.)
Mark Skrobola

In 1923, Frank Gannett, a newspaperman from Rochester, New York, founded Gannet Company, Inc, as an offshoot of his first business, the Elmira Gazette. In a handful of years, Gannett spread far past Elmira, pursuing a strategy of buying up smaller local independent papers and consolidating them into a chain; he earned the moniker “the Great Hyphenator” for his practice of merging two papers into one. (He was also virulently conservative, at one point saying that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies “might be called Fascism, Nazism, or Communism. It all amounts to the same thing.”) By the time of his death in 1957, he owned some 22 daily newspapers, alongside four radio stations and two TV stations.

Today, after a series of mergers, Gannett is the largest newspaper chain in America. It owns over 250 daily papers and more than 300 weekly ones, which it has largely acquired by pursuing the exact same strategy: buy up papers en masse, consolidate them, and hack off everything else but the bare bones. One of the only obstacles to this policy, which Gannett has doubled down on whenever markets and revenues dip, is organized labor.

“I noticed very quickly when I started, people treated the “U” word like cancer,” Mike Davis, a reporter at the Asbury Park Press, a Gannett local in New Jersey, told Discourse Blog. “If there were three people gathering around someone’s desk, we used to joke — ‘gotta scatter, in case they think it’s a union meeting!'”

During the pandemic, of course, there were no desks to gather around. And so, from the privacy of their homes, Gannett employees across the northeast started to unionize. In the past year, employees at the Bergen Record, the NJ Herald, and the Daily Record unionized. They were followed by the Asbury Park Press, the Courier News and the Home News Tribune, and then the Journal News, Poughkeepsie Journal, and Times Herald-Record. All of these papers joined the News Guild, forming three different local shops: the Record Guild, APP-MCJ Guild, and Hudson Valley Guild. The publications have effectively turned Gannett’s strategy against them, organizing as consolidated units with far more leverage than the independent publications they work for.

They were confronted, almost immediately, by a wave of resistance by their parent company. Gannett’s anti-union strategy is almost identical to the one Discourse Blog has covered in the past. The first move, when the Record Guild announced, was an attempt to slash the size of the unit, excluding the 21 web producers who maintain all of the Gannett websites across five states on the Eastern seaboard from joining any of the publication-specific unions. In response, the producers organized on their own, forming the Atlantic Digital Optimization Team Guild, or Atlantic DOT Guild. Gannett has yet to voluntarily recognize any of the new units despite supermajority-level support in each case, instead pushing them toward National Labor Relations Board elections.

When reached for comment about Gannett’s resistance to organizing, a spokesperson forwarded a statement by Michael Kilian, the New York State regional editor for the company, which was originally sent as a letter to a group of New York state senators who called for Gannett to recognize the Hudson Valley unit on August 2. Kilian’s statement followed the familiar corporate stalling playbook to a tee, saying, “the election period allows employees the time and space to research, ask questions and determine whether they believe union representation is the right decision for them. We respect the right of our employees to make a fully informed choice.”

This strategy, of course, allows Gannett to delay as much as possible, further pushing back the date when it will have to actually grant its unionized employees a collective bargaining agreement and giving it more time to try and pressure its workers to vote down the union in an election.

Gannett employees’ reasons for organizing also aren’t new.

“We’d been hearing horror stories for years,” Davis said. “The mass layoffs, people being forced to re-apply for their jobs, people getting laid off on vacation — all this behavior comes from a company that doesn’t care about its people. I don’t know the last time someone retired from one of our papers voluntarily.”

Every person I spoke to for this piece had their own versions of these stories. A pregnant colleague laid off during the pandemic. A 30-year employee forced to take a buyout because he didn’t respond to an email that he missed in his inbox. In 2008, during a particularly brutal layoff cycle where reporters were made to go upstairs and re-apply for their own jobs, Journal-News veteran reporter Peter Kramer remembered making a video set to Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” highlighting his work (he kept his job).

“Gannett has learned to do things more quietly now,” Kramer said. “One or two layoffs at a time. We’re basically told to shut up and be grateful we have a job.”

In April, the News Guild published a study of 14 unionized Gannett newsrooms, finding that the company had a pattern of wide pay disparities on gender and racial lines, and reinforcing the company’s own data that many of its newsrooms were demographically whiter than the communities they covered. But it also found that these divisions narrowed the longer a newsroom had been unionized, particularly among those that had ratified a CBA with management, as opposed to those still in bargaining for their first contract.

This data has perhaps handed Gannett a somewhat novel cudgel in their war on the union. In the Hudson Valley Unit, Kramer said that management started to pressure employees with pointed references to “seniority protection” that could go by the wayside if new diversity requirements were adopted in a CBA.

“Pitting older, whiter, seasoned veterans against the ideal [of a more diverse newsroom] that we’re all fighting for is disingenuous,” Kramer said. “It plays on our worst fear. Nobody wants to lose their job.”

“The company could diversify our newsrooms while keeping senior staff, filling long-vacant positions with journalists who reflect our diverse communities,” Kramer added in a follow-up message. “Instead, they chose, in mandatory meetings, to frame it in a way that suggests it’s either/ or. It’s not.”

Kramer said that he and his peers were quick to reassure younger members of the unit that they weren’t going to be swayed. And while that tactic was a surprise, the News Guild has largely been prepared from day one: management in general is running out of tricks. When the Bergen Record first went public, staff photographer Danielle Parhizkaran told Discourse Blog that it only took 10 or 15 minutes of management’s first scripted captive audience meeting for someone to hit bingo on the News Guild’s anti-union talking point bingo card. Jackson Lewis, the notoriously anti-union law firm retained by Gannett to fight unions, even has a 2019 brochure for a “Counter Organizing Simulation” online, headlined “Remaining UNION FREE.”

The brochure advertises a seminar that does everything we’ve covered here and elsewhere. It will teach a company to “strategically align job classifications to argue for the most appropriate bargaining unit for the company,” (cut down the unit), “best practices when responding to unfair labor practices before the [NLRB] (beating the rap on ULPs), and even “Address employees’ social media use… to broadcast messages in support of a union using your organization’s own computers,” (don’t do union stuff on company tech). The end result is a process that takes as much time, and as much hassle, as is humanly possible. Even that delay is something Gannett tries to use, as Kramer said that management has also pushed the line that unions can’t deliver what they promise, citing the long waiting period between unionizing and ratification of a first contract. (“Basically, ‘look how good we are at dragging our feet,'” he said.)

But what no amount of stalling will prevent is that the unions are here. They’re public. And their growth in the Northeast region directly affects what Davis called Gannett’s “cash cow.”

“Frankly, it’s about time,” Davis told me. “It’s not that we’re breaking new ground here, we’re just catching up with the rest of the industry. [This region] is a really crucial place for Gannett’s business model. That’s how you get the company to pay attention, finally, after all this time.”