An election has been authorized by the National Labor Relations Board allowing 21 members of the Billings Gazette news, sports, editing and photography staff to vote on forming the Montana News Guild.
Ballots are going out Thursday and will be counted in early July. Nineteen of 21 news staffers had signed a letter requesting voluntary recognition in May.
The Gazette is Montana’s largest daily newspaper. Only one other state newspaper has ever unionized, the Missoula Independent, which was purchased by Lee Enterprises and summarily closed. Lee Enterprises is a Davenport, Iowa, based company that owns The Gazette, Missoulian, Ravalli Republic, Helena Independent Record and (Butte) Montana Standard newspapers.
Three members of the Billings Gazette’s management team met with Montana News Guild organizers on Monday in an attempt to dissuade them from voting to unionize. On Tuesday the managers met with the rest of the newsroom, and Lee executives spoke to all of the editors and reporters.
Lee vice president John Humenik spoke for most of the meeting, praising the work done at The Gazette and other Lee newspapers. He also asked Gazette staffers questions about the work we’ve done. The word “union” did not come up in the hour-and-a-half meeting.
Gazette President Dave Worstell, whose title was recently changed from publisher to reflect his wider role over sales, voiced his strong support for the newsroom but said unionizing will do nothing to improve the staff’s current situation. They are already compensated at a rate higher than the state average, Worstell argued. Raises, although not given to everyone, were higher than any negotiated by other Lee newspapers that unionized, including the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming and the Omaha World-Herald, he argued without providing any evidence. He also did not know if raises for either newspaper were higher or lower after unionizing than they were before.
Regional editor David McCumber, who now oversees all Lee Montana newsrooms since the layoff of Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick this spring, said in his 50-year career in the newspaper business unions had only clogged the lines of communication between management and their staff.
“I just don’t think this is the right step,” said McCumber, who is based in Butte, a city that used to be the stronghold of unions in the state.
Rob Rogers, city council reporter, said management’s concerns may be valid but questioned what would happen when they were gone? A contract, he pointed out, would guarantee the newsroom certain protections when the newspaper’s president or editors retire, are laid off or leave.
Members of the Montana News Guild organizing committee stressed their continuing frustration at not being heard when they’ve offered comments or suggestions on newsroom improvements, or at simply having to toe the line to the latest whims of their Lee Corporate bosses. That frustration has been exacerbated by continued layoffs and outsourcing of duties.
“We understand what’s going on” with the decline in newspaper staff, said Anna Paige, arts and entertainment reporter. “But we have long been left out of the conversations on what happens to our team. It’s hard because Lee is not transparent at all.”
Sports reporter Victor Flores said Lee’s corporate officers have already clogged up communications between employees and managers, not the formation of any union. The employees are the union, Juliana Sukut, general assignment reporter, pointed out.
“For me, it can’t be understated that small measure of security we’ll feel” by unionizing, said cops and courts reporter Phoebe Tollefson.