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Aug. 14, 2019, 2:13 p.m.
Reporting & Production

America’s largest union of journalists is doing a rewrite of its leadership election

Three decades of age separate the incumbent and his challenger, who present different views of the NewsGuild’s effectiveness organizing new newsrooms.

A little-noticed announcement this week could have a significant impact on the future of labor and unionization in newsrooms across the United States and Canada.

The announcement came from the NewsGuild, known until 2015 as the Newspaper Guild, and for the better part of a century the most important union representing journalists and other news workers — currently more than 20,000 of them across the continent. (I was a member when I worked at The Toledo Blade in the late 1990s.)

In May, the guild held its first contested election for national president in more than a decade, with incumbent Bernie Lunzer defeating challenger Jon Schleuss 1,282 votes to 1,021. It was a hard-fought battle with generational undertones. Lunzer is a St. Paul Pioneer Press alum who served on his first bargaining committee in 1981 and has been president since 2008.

Schleuss, meanwhile, wasn’t alive in 1981. He graduated college in 2013 and moved shortly thereafter to the L.A. Times, where he is a data and graphics journalist. At the Times, he helped lead what became perhaps the NewsGuild’s biggest win of recent years — the unionization last year of what had for 136 years always been a non-union shop.

Schleuss, three decades younger than his opponent, ran a campaign that argued the NewsGuild’s ways of operating had become outmoded:

At a time of great challenges, we must build a modern, forward-looking International NewsGuild that will better serve our members and grow our numbers…The International Guild can no longer take a passive approach to organizing — the posture that saw it retreat and shrink for decades. We need a smart, cutting-edge strategy to motivate, guide and support — with real resources — organizing campaigns wherever media workers lack representation.

We must use all the weapons we can bring to bear — data and analytics, persuasive storytelling and messaging, deep reporting on corporate looting and executive misconduct — to win these campaigns. We’ve seen this work on the ground in places like L.A…

The International Guild should be the first choice for media professionals who want to organize. Every media professional in the United States and Canada should view the Guild as a vibrant union that promises its members a more secure future…

With the organizing campaigns we’ve won at the grassroots since early 2018, we’ve shown that the Guild can and will grow. And when we grow, [parent union the Communications Workers of America] grows.

A change in leadership that reflects the remarkable surge in successful organizing campaigns will make the Guild a stronger advocate for its members in the CWA. That advocacy will include a firm stance for the Guild’s independence within the CWA as a union of journalists and other media workers.

That bit about being “the first choice for media professionals who want to organize” comes with some context. The NewsGuild has had successes in unionizing some digital shops — BuzzFeed, Ars Technica, Pitchfork, Quartz, The Guardian’s U.S. operation — as well at with digital workers at publications where the guild was already representing print-side employees. But there’s a widespread sense that the guild has also lost some of its position of leadership in organizing to Writers Guild of America East — a union with more of a history in television and film that has moved aggressively into digital media. (WGAE had an important early win organizing Gawker in 2015; it also represents workers at Vice, Vox Media, HuffPost, Slate, Salon, Refinery29, Gimlet Media, MTV News, and The Intercept. The Ringer’s staff said it was organizing with WGAE this week.)

Meanwhile, Lunzer defended his record and emphasized the headwinds unions face in the current political and financial environment:

A collective bargaining program that’s innovative and demanding. An organizing program that’s historic for The NewsGuild-CWA. Outreach efforts that include free press, pay equity and other issues. These are just some of The Guild’s accomplishments under my leadership…

I am not starry-eyed. I know unions and journalism are under well-funded attacks on every front. Our members are overworked and underpaid. Many owners who should care about the future of journalism simply don’t. They’re greedy. They kill our products and blame the internet…

TNG organizers work closely with the groups that want to form unions. These groups create their own victories with big assists from TNG with finances and people. Our plan leads from start-up to recognition to first contract, and we’re prepared for each critical step. We can expand organizing, which requires additional resources. I am working hard to make sure TNG gets everything necessary to continue to build the Guild…

We don’t rely only on what’s worked in the past, however. We have done two experiments with coordinated bargaining at Digital First Media/Alden and Gatehouse Media. I believe that both have been successful and likely will be successful in the future because the members have stuck together.

At the heart of this, we are fighting hedge fund owners who are both amoral and immoral. We have been working on alternative ownership strategies and must pry our products from these rapacious owners and connect our communities directly to the product. It is the future of media.

As I said, Lunzer won the election in May, by 261 votes. But a number of guild members, including Schleuss, cited what they considered a number of problems with the election. The most significant: Hundreds if not thousands of guild members never received ballots. (In Canada alone, more than 1,000 members had their ballots mailed to an incorrect home address. Another 900-plus people were sent ballots despite being ineligible to vote in the election.)

Here’s Schleuss at the time: “I am disappointed at how things were handled and that the current leadership prevented thousands of members from voting, including those from long-established locals. It’s shameful and embarrassing. We are supposed to be a democratic, member-driven union. In conducting elections, we cannot tolerate violations of our rules or our ethics.”

Lunzer at the time argued it was time to accept the results and move on: “I call on those who care about the Guild to join me in getting our work done. We had a long election and it was hard-fought. Whatever limitations existed were experienced by both candidates…Let’s quit the politics and get on with the work.”

Those matters were referred to the union’s Sector Election and Referendum Committee, and on Monday, it announced that the irregularities merited throwing out May’s results and holding a new election. (The committee said the Canadian ballot problems were significant enough to prompt that move; it denied a number of other complaints lodged by Schleuss and others.) The new election will take place this fall — mail ballots going out in late October, in-person voting at job sites in November, and results expected in December.

So the two candidates are ready to start all over again — an election that has become for some a referendum on what a union organizing and representing journalists should look like in 2019. Back in February, NewsGuild of New York president Grant Glickson said in nominating Schleuss: “Elections can do just as much to mobilize our members. I know this may bring some tension to the room, but tension is good.”

Photo of striking Newspaper Guild members outside the New York Daily News on Nov. 1, 1962, via AP.

POSTED     Aug. 14, 2019, 2:13 p.m.
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