It’s been two years since the Austin News Guild, a union for reporters at the Austin American-Statesman, first sat down at the bargaining table with Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain.
The corporate media behemoth has refused to budge on Statesman reporters’ salaries, the highest priority for the union. And the two parties have not reached agreements on parts of the labor contract that seem like no-brainers: language that would ensure reporters can leave dangerous situations (say, the scene of an ongoing mass shooting) without punishment, or that they could refuse story assignments they believe to be unethical due to conflicts of interest, for example.
Gannett’s attorney handling negotiations, Steve Moss, has refused to even discuss money until the two parties have hammered out all of the “non-economic” parts of the contract union members will work under, including those safety and ethics-related proposals. As this drags on, some reporters are working two jobs to make ends meet. The recently Pulitzer-nominated newsroom is hemorrhaging staff. Reporters who remain absorb their departed colleagues’ workloads.
So they’re ready to strike, and soon.
“Gannett doesn’t think we’ll do it. I think they think we’re too scared, because a lot of us are new to this union business,” said Luz Moreno-Lozano, chair of the News Guild and the Statesman’s City Hall and local government reporter. Then she laughed. “But I’ve got news for them.”
They don’t know if they’ll strike for one day, a week, or indefinitely. Moreno-Lozano pointed out that reporters from the Gannett-owned Fort Worth Star-Telegram were on strike for 24 days. As a result, this January they ratified the only union contract at a Texas newspaper. Going on strike, especially in a city as expensive as Austin, will not be easy for staff already struggling financially. But they won’t do it alone – last week, the guild started a GoFundMe (which went public yesterday) to keep their members afloat as they refuse to work. They’ve raised $3,500. By the end of their strike, The Fort Worth News Guild had raised $50,602 through a GoFundMe.
Whether or not the strike will be effective, the union isn’t sure. “But this is just one part of how we will get there. None of us have been on strike before and it’s very scary when you’re jumping in head first to a strike,” said Moreno-Lozano. “We might not see a lot of movement or we could. The only way to find out is if we do it.”
What movement are they looking for? A minimum salary of $55,000 a year, while their current salary floor stands at $42,000. “That’s what we’ve researched is a livable wage. It’s not great, but at least at $55,000 people can make some good decisions with their life.” Other top priorities are yearly step increases in salary, a clear calculation method for seniority, special temporary pay rates for reporters filling in as editors, and protections against racism and harassment in the newsroom. Two months ago, Moss rejected their entire package, and the other journalist unions Moss has negotiated with in New York and New Jersey on behalf of Gannett have not ratified contracts yet, Moreno-Lozano said.
“Gannett is downsizing and they are expecting us to do more with less. Everyone is overwhelmed and burnt out. … It’s hard to feel good about your job and what you’re doing if you’re scrambling to catch up. It’s basically a form of gaslighting. They’re like, ‘How dare you not be able to cover these five stories,’ to make you feel like you’re not good at your job so why would you deserve a raise?” Moreno-Lozano said. “They are looking for every way to get us to fold and give up on proposals and just agree to what they want. Which we’re not gonna do. We’re gonna do our due diligence.”
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