The Los Angeles Times announced on Friday that its newsroom earlier this month voted overwhelmingly to unionize, 248–44. The Los Angeles Times Guild will be the first union to represent the historically anti-labor paper in its nearly 137-year history. While newsrooms at some legacy newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, have long been unionized, the precariousness of 21st-century media has led to an increasing number of unionized newsrooms in recent months and years.
The L.A. Times unionization vote came after months of attempts at dissuasion by the paper's management, via email and flyers, and a decision not to voluntarily recognize the union that led to the newsroom vote this month. The union will be part of the NewsGuild, a union network that represents 25,000 staffers at media companies across the United States. (The new union is already grappling with management issues: On Thursday, NPR published a lengthy report detailing accusations of inappropriate workplace conduct against L.A. Times Publisher Ross Levinsohn, who was subsequently placed on unpaid leave.)
Pacific Standard spoke with Carolina A. Miranda, staff culture writer, and member of the LA Times Guild organizing committee about the the unionization process, the trend of unionizing newsrooms—and the attendant pushback from the management at media companies.
What role will the union play in the L.A. Times newsroom?
We have some basic housekeeping that we need to get out of the way: establishing who will be the representative in the bargaining unit and canvassing the staff to see what the important issues of the staff are going forward. Certainly top of mind are issues of benefits, of negotiated severance for layoffs, protecting changes to our working conditions.
Although you're now a unionized newsroom, you still have to establish a collective bargaining agreement with the management. Could they choose not to establish one?
Once the Los Angeles Times Guild is certified by the National Labor Relations Board, which will likely happen in about a week, the company is legally obligated to bargain with the Guild over mandatory subjects of bargaining (such as employee working conditions and benefits). The company cannot reject dealing with the Guild. Naturally, we are hopeful that they will bargain with us in good faith.
The L.A. Times has been around since 1881 without a union. Why now?
The L.A. Times has a history of being an anti-union newspaper; "General" Otis and Harry Chandler were quite vociferously anti-union. Now, with all the management changes, the editorial staff came to the conclusion that we are the long-running presence at the L.A. Times. I haven't even been there four years, and I've been through four publishers. There was a feeling among a lot of the staff that we are the long-running presence here. We are the consistent presence. We are the ones that do the work, that make the money for the company. So we need to have a seat at the table when it comes to considering the future of the company.
Was there an immediate inciting incident that transformed that feeling into action toward unionization?
It's been a series of incidents. Over the last 10 years, the L.A. Times has experienced a lot of management tumult. Starting with the Sam Zell years, then the acquisition by Tribune, followed by the takeover by first Austin Beutner under Tribune, and now Michael Ferro under Tronc. There's just been this revolving door in the executive suite. It's the drip factor of all of those elements, combined with the fact that, over the years, we've seen our benefits continuously degraded, as well as regular layoffs and buyouts. Last year, the company unilaterally changed our vacation policy. For a lot of people that was yet another case of the company unilaterally making changes, and us not having any voice to change it.
Was it the straw that broke the camel's back? I don't know, but it was one of many factors that have led us to where we are now.
Like the L.A. Times, many newsrooms have unionized in recent years—Vox, Vice, Gawker, HuffPost, the Intercept, etc. Does the precarious state of media have anything to do with an increased interest in union protections in newsrooms?
I think the precarious state of media has a big part of it. We don't know what our future is. I've been working in media for over 20 years, and with every job, layoffs have loomed over my shoulder. With the rise of the Internet, it's been a little bit like navigating a tsunami on a paddle board—holding on for dear life and hoping that you survive it. There have been all these attempts in recent years to figure out how you monetize journalism. How do you make all of this sustainable? And all of those are important and worthy issues to consider, but part of what we're concerned with is making sure we do that without attacking journalism's core purpose, which is to report the news. Sometimes that news is not sexy news. Sometimes that news is not the news that generates tons of clicks, but that news is very important for civic purposes. And for us, seeing the way the media has evolved, that issue is increasingly important. Yes, that we evolve to be a sustainable business, but that we do it in a way that doesn't attack what we do, and doesn't undermine what we do.
From BuzzFeed to Vox to the L.A. Times, we've recently seen the management of several media companies push back against the prospect of a unionized newsroom, but the L.A. Times management's distribution of anti-union fliers and info and the newsroom's publication of Tronc executive expenditures made the back-and-forth even more contentious than usual. Was that a scary process to go through for those in the newsroom who were vocally pro-union?
The reporting that we did on some of the perks that the executives are lavishing on themselves was to make a case for why a union was necessary thing. When we started the unionization process, a lot of people [asked]: "Where would we get money for raises? Where would we get money for a cost of living increase? Where would we get money to maintain an accrued vacation policy?"
Our answer is that the money is there, it's just being spent on other things, like executive compensation, jets, housing allowances. And we felt protected, given that it was public information from SEC filings. We were just doing what reporters do: Read the fine print.
The vote was pretty overwhelmingly in favor of unionization. Was the support in the newsroom always that robust, or did the pro-union voices have to do a lot of work to convince people?
There was definitely a slow build. There were a lot of people who were cool to a union at first, who were quite skeptical of what a union might be able to achieve. As the year progressed, and as we saw how Tronc executives were managing the company, the growing feeling was that we need an entity to represent us. When it comes to this business, everyone was represented, except for us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.