The Texas Tribune Is Unionizing

Tribune staff began organizing after last summer’s layoffs (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Just under six months after the Texas Tribune weathered its first-ever round of layoffs, staff announced this morning that they are unionizing with the NewsGuild-CWA and asking for voluntary recognition from management by January 31.

CEO Sonal Shah sent an email to staff 15 minutes after management was made aware of the union, writing, “Our response is simple. If Tribune employees want to be represented by a union, we will respect their right to representation… We respect our colleagues’ right to collectively bargain.”

Talk of unionizing began when management alluded to budget shortfalls in the spring of 2023, but it was the layoffs that “created a sense of urgency to mobilize across the newsroom,” says Uriel García, an immigration reporter based in El Paso. Those layoffs, which affected 11% of the staff, were shocking – particularly the decision to fire the Tribune’s only dedicated criminal justice and demographic reporters. Many journalists were frustrated by the lack of explanation from management about the rationale behind the cuts. (One particularly chilling theory is that the decision was swayed by public institutions that had pulled sponsorships, which make up a significant portion of the Tribune’s revenue.)

“The hope is the union will create an avenue for more transparency about the Tribune’s financial situation, and generate more of a dialogue between management and employers,” says higher education reporter Kate McGee. “This seemed like the right moment to ensure that we the employees have a voice in future conversations about where the Tribune is headed.”

Organizers are also looking to preserve benefits they currently enjoy at the Tribune, in stark contrast to other newsrooms like the Austin American-Statesman that are organizing in reaction to what they describe as untenable working conditions and tense relationships with management. “The Tribune is very employee-first minded. Management is pretty considerate about letting us have a good work/life balance,” says García. His previous employer, the Arizona Republic, took four years to negotiate a contract; he’s more optimistic about the Tribune’s management. He says in Arizona, the people who needed to recognize the union weren’t in the newsroom. “That’s a key difference here. The people who have the power to recognize us see and interact with employees day-to-day. Some of us have worked at newsrooms where they’re owned by corporations. There’s a reason why we came to the Tribune.”

That collaborative environment extends to the organizing effort – the Texas Tribune Guild is a wall-to-wall union, meaning that it will represent not only journalists, but around 50 eligible staff members including photographers, designers, and engineers. “We all feel like none of us can do our jobs without one another.” More than 95% of eligible staff members have signed onto the union’s mission statement; 90% have signed the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) authorization card.

Many at the Tribune come from other news organizations that were already unionized, or that they themselves helped organize. María Méndez, the Tribune’s service and engagement reporter, was previously with the Austin American-Statesman, where she saw how Gannett couldn’t pull the rug out from under staff thanks to the Austin NewsGuild. After Gannett suspended 401(k) matching during the pandemic, the union filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the NLRB and was able to get that reinstated, along with back pay, due to status quo protections in place while a contract is negotiated.

“We have seen a lot of uncertainty and layoffs, even in the past few weeks, in newsrooms around the country,” says McGee. Just a few weeks ago, the CEO of the newly formed startup Houston Landing fired its editor-in-chief and top investigative reporter without warning, followed by widespread outcry from staff. She says heading into a presidential election year raises the stakes – the country needs robust news outlets covering politics, and she argues unionization creates the kind of newsrooms up to the task.

“Ultimately,” says García, “the underlying point is we like our jobs, we like the Tribune, and we want to make sure that every current and future employee feels the same.”

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