Montana News Guild ratifies first contract

Members of the Montana News Guild stand outside The Billings Gazette newsroom on Oct. 1, 2020. (Photo by Brooke Moore)

The staff of Montana’s only union newspaper has approved its first contract in a historic vote.

After three months of negotiations during a pandemic and following mandatory two-week furloughs, a majority of the Montana News Guild’s 20 members voted to ratify a one-year contract with the Billings Gazette and Lee Enterprises. The company agreed to many, but not all, of the Guild’s proposals.

“The Guild’s bargaining committee did a great job under extremely difficult circumstances,” said Brett French, outdoors editor at the Gazette.  

Citing the uncertainty of the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee would not agree to a two-year contract.

“It is bittersweet, but I’m so proud of this,” said Rob Rogers, Gazette government reporter.

Lee Enterprises, based in Davenport, Iowa, owns the Gazette as well as the Ravalli Republic (Hamilton), Missoulian, Helena Independent Record and (Butte) Montana Standard.

The Montana News Guild negotiated several benefits for the Gazette’s news staff, including:

  • Raises for the staff’s three lowest paid employees and a base starting salary for all future employees;
  • A requirement that the newspaper interview at least one qualified woman and/or member of traditionally under-represented groups for any job openings;
  • Health insurance premium rates memorialized for 2021;
  • A grievance procedure, overtime and severance guarantees.

“This is a good contract that will make our newsroom better,” said Victor Flores, Gazette sports reporter. “We wanted more, but we aren’t going to let perfect be the enemy of good.”

The Guild was unable to achieve even minimal cost of living increases for 17 members of its staff — despite seeking only a $13,000 annual increase for all 20 employees combined. The union was also unsuccessful in its quest to guarantee no layoffs beyond mid-December.

“We even offered to take furloughs to avoid more layoffs, but were turned down,” French said. “With layoffs inevitable, we argued that the remaining staff should receive a minimal cost of living increase since they would be covering for their former colleagues. Lee denied that request, too. This may be why the contract vote wasn’t unanimous. Some people were likely upset with Lee’s intransigence.”

In October, contract talks had stalled and Lee Enterprises indicated it wasn’t planning to budge. 

“The company wasn’t going to give us anything better until we pushed outside of talks with emails to executives and social media posts,” said reporter Phoebe Tollefson. “I think that shows the importance of a union in fighting Lee’s decisions about how it treats employees.”

In the end, the company agreed to the Guild’s doubled severance buyout with a maximum of 26 weeks for up to three employees available for 45 days after the contract is ratified. This buyout also includes $2,400 cash that may be used for two months of COBRA health insurance payments.  

If there are not three employees who seek a buyout, the Gazette and Lee Enterprises have said they will lay off employees to meet their budget targets.

The contract also has no guarantees there won’t be more layoffs even three months from now. That’s the precarious and uncertain situation all Lee Enterprises’ employees continue to face. 

The reduction of the Billings Gazette’s staff will come in the wake of layoffs, resignations and retirements at other Lee Montana newspapers this fall. The latest came when the newly established States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, hired Lee Montana’s capitol reporter, Holly Michels, and Helena Independent Record reporter and assistant editor Tom Kuglin. States Newsroom’s Montana bureau is being led by former Billings Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick.

“The sad thing is, and this is a Lee tradition, as great people are walking out the door management often asks them what it would take for them to stay,” French said. “The company is blind to the value of its employees until they are leaving.”

Lee editors have said both Helena positions would be filled even though their Montana newspapers will now be able to use their former reporters’ and editor’s stories for free. 

States Newsroom will be the third entity in Montana providing free newspaper content as the industry attempts to find an alternative to the traditional corporate model offered by companies like Lee Enterprises. The other nonprofit news outlets include Montana Free Press and Kaiser Health News. 

“What does it say about corporate journalism when nonprofits can hire away talent by offering better pay and benefits?” French questioned. “The current corporate funding model is broken — paying executives six- and seven-figure salaries with increased subscription and advertising rates while denying many employees a living wage or annual cost of living increases.”

“A Lee executive in Davenport, Iowa, is not worth 14 to 28 times more than a reporter in Montana,” he added.

The Montana News Guild is encouraging other Lee newspapers in the state, and nation, to follow in their footsteps and unionize to create a united voice for reform. Members of the bargaining committee are willing to help other newspapers through the process in whatever ways possible.

Unionizing isn’t undertaken alone.

“We couldn’t have done it without the constant, thoughtful help of Denver News Guild administrative officer Tony Mulligan and Omaha World-Herald union organizer Hunter Paniagua who guided us through the complicated process,” French said.

The Montana News Guild also had vocal support from many readers, past Billings Gazette journalists and fellow media who reported the story.

“You always find out who your friends are when faced with a difficult situation,” French said. “So many good people have worked — and continue to work — at the Billings Gazette, and many of our readers have been loyal supporters of the staff even as they’ve seen subscription prices climb and news staff cut.”

Such support cheers the Montana News Guild, knowing that local news and photos still matter at a time when journalism is undergoing tremendous challenges.

“This entire process has been incredibly revealing for me,” said French, a 35-year newspaper veteran. “I had no idea until we organized some of the problems my fellow workers had encountered. So many of us have been beaten down by the continual cuts and inexplicable corporate decisions.

“What’s been really heartening throughout this, though, is the people who have worked extremely hard to get this union off the ground,” he added. “Rob Rogers, Victor Flores, Tom Lutey, Juliana Sukut and Anna Paige are genuinely kind, intelligent, courageous people who do great work. 

“Lastly, but maybe most importantly, reporter Phoebe Tollefson stepped up throughout this process with her organizational skills, smarts and tenacity to keep us moving forward,” French said. “It is young journalists like her who give me hope for the future of our profession, no matter what form it takes.”

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