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Jan. 24, 2024, 10:08 a.m.

The Texas Tribune moves to unionize

The “wall to wall” union would represent 50 staffers in departments across the nonprofit newsroom.

Staff across several departments at The Texas Tribune announced they’re unionizing Wednesday. The move comes in the wake of layoffs that took staff and news industry onlookers by surprise last year.

Newsroom organizers presented Texas Tribune management with a mission statement signed by 86% of eligible staffers Tuesday morning, and asked editor-in-chief Sewell Chan and CEO Sonal Shah to voluntarily recognize the union. About 90% of staff also signed union authorization cards, organizers said.

“For more than a decade, The Tribune has been an aggressive watchdog covering and demystifying state politics and policy for all Texans through voter guides, events and news coverage of the Texas Capitol and Congress. We cover the entire state of Texas, with staff who live and work everywhere from Lubbock to San Antonio, Lufkin to El Paso,” the mission statement reads. “We want to work with our management to shape the next era of the Tribune. That is why we are forming a union.”

“We understand our industry consistently faces financial challenges and the Tribune is not immune to budgetary hardships, including layoffs,” the statement continues. “Because of these eternal challenges, we want a seat at the table next to management making decisions about our organization’s future and how to best serve our members and readers.”

Tribune CEO Sonal Shah responded quickly to the request for voluntarily recognition, writing to staff early Monday morning that the Tribune would “start the process of working through the details of the request” and “when completed, would respect the employees’ decision.”

“A group of colleagues has shared with us their intent to form a Texas Tribune union,” Shah wrote. “Our response is simple. If Tribune employees want to be represented by a union, we will respect their right to representation.”

Shah stopped short of saying the leadership would voluntarily recognize the union. “I do want everyone involved to understand there is a legal process, and it will require some time,” she cautioned. Newsroom organizers said they were encouraged by the response.

If recognized, the “wall to wall” union would represent about 50 Texas Tribune staffers — from reporters, designers, and engineers to revenue and other business-side workers — in one unit.

“There seems to be a disconnect among departments [in newsrooms] sometimes. But — at least in my experience — something that stands out at the Tribune is that it’s a very collaborative organization,” said Uriel García, an immigration reporter for the Tribune. “A lot of us have determined we cannot do our jobs without one another. So when we decided to create a union, early on we decided, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to include everyone.”

“It wasn’t just a sign of strength in numbers,” García added, “but also a recognition that the collaborative nature of the Tribune is unique, and we want to include everyone in the same way that our day-to-day workflow includes everyone.”

The Texas Tribune, founded in 2009, has long been lauded as one of nonprofit news’s successes but told staff last summer it was facing a budget shortfall. In addition to layoffs and executive pay cuts, the Tribune said it would double its revenue team to help improve its financial outlook. Staffers brought up those first-ever layoffs — in which 11 staffers, including some long-tenured Tribune journalists, departed — as an impetus to organize.

“I think the layoffs were a grim reminder that the media industry isn’t always employee-friendly,” García added. “And so we needed to find a way to to protect ourselves and be able to have a say in these higher-stake decisions.”

Kate McGee, who covers higher education, joined The Texas Tribune from the unionized Chicago Public Media three years ago. She said the layoffs and other turnover left her one of the longest-tenured reporters at the Tribune.

“I think it’s fair to say the layoffs helped mobilize people to have more serious conversations about unionizing. I wouldn’t say it’s the only reason we’re organizing,” she said. “I see this as being about the future of the Tribune and what it looks like, and feels like, to work here now and in the future.”

Many also mentioned wanting to preserve the culture and collaborative nature at the Tribune, which underwent a leadership change in 2022 as cofounders stepped away. McGee, for one, characterized the working environment — including benefits and work-life balance — at the Tribune as above average for the news industry.

“I think we’re at a point where we want to make sure it remains that way,” she said. “We’ve been in existence for a little over 10 years now. This seems like the right moment to ensure that all employees have a voice in the future conversations about where the organization is heading and how we make sure that we maintain a good working environment for everyone across the board.”

Organizers were hopeful that leadership would voluntarily recognize their union and described the Tribune as having, generally, “an employee-first” mindset. There’s been a wave of newsroom unionization in recent years, including at ProPublica and several other nonprofit newsrooms. Recent research found roughly one-third of local newsrooms unions were voluntarily recognized by management. The other two-thirds gained representation through an election. In right-to-work states, which include Texas, a lower percentage of newsroom unions were voluntarily recognized by management, according to the work from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. About 25% of local newsrooms in right-to-work states gained representation that way.

The Tribune organizers declined to specify more particular “asks” for management, saying they wanted to enter internal discussions and any negotiations with newsroom management with “a blank slate.”

“We want to get feedback from every member about what should go into any contract,” García said. “The biggest ask we’re asking right now is just getting management to voluntarily recognize us. I think once we get that hurdle out of the way, it’ll help us with our next steps.”

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Jan. 24, 2024, 10:08 a.m.
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