David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The State of Our Unions
by David Bacon

BERKELEY (11/22/98) - Bay Area media unions, like those everywhere else in the country, live today in the shadow of Detroit. Newspaper workers at the Detroit News and Free Press have been on strike for three years, since walking out in 1995 over corporate demands for deep concessions. Although the National Labor Relations Board has ruled the strike was caused by illegal bad faith bargaining by their employers, thus giving strikers the right to immediate reinstatement with back pay, the two newspapers continue to run with strikebreakers. Only a handful of strikers have been rehired.

The Detroit strike is not an isolated case of unionbusting -- it has been the key battle in a long series of labor wars between media workers and the huge corporations that have come to dominate the industry. The battle of Detroit was preceded by newspaper strikes in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre. San Francisco experienced its share of the conflict with a 12-day strike in 1994.

These labor wars haven't been confined to newspapers. In the early nineties NBC, now a subsidiary of General Electric, took on the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) in a strike which lasted nineteen weeks. As this article goes to press, Disney has taken up that battle, locking out NABET technicians around the country.

These labor wars are one product of the increasing monopolization of the communications industry. Giant corporations like Gannett and Knight-Ridder, owners of the Detroit News and Free Press respectively, have deep pockets, with resources sufficient to run a struck newspaper at a loss for a long period of time. While losing money at one paper, the chain (and employers throughout the industry) gain overall by creating a bargaining environment in which they can win concessions, limit the wage and economic demands of unions, and discourage workers from organizing at their non-union operations.

That is, in fact, the context of bargaining in the media industry. Increases in wages and conditions are still possible, and workers still win them. But the overall climate is one in which unions fight a succession of defensive battles, trying to protect their jurisdictions, the jobs of their members, and the work rules and conditions established decades ago when unions were stronger, and the industry less monopolized.

That environment has a profound effect on Bay Area media workers. But in northern California it has been balanced by the relative success of the newspaper strike four years ago, that beat off the local attack on wages and conditions.

In 1994, the San Francisco dailies and their distribution and production arm, the SF Newspaper Agency, brought in the law firm of King and Ballow. "We knew what that meant," recalls Carl Hall, president of the Northern California Media Workers Guild (formerly the Northern California Newspaper Guild). "We could see the strike coming."

At the New York Daily News , King and Ballow orchestrated a five-month long walkout in the early 1990s, which newspaper unions made a national rallying cry. According to Ed Rosario, an executive board member of the Bay Area's Web Pressmen Local 4, the key to winning the New York strike was the strength of the delivery unions. "Management could replace its pressmen," Rosario says, "and the people in the newsrooms. But although they could get a shell of a paper printed, they couldn't get it into the hands of any readers without the drivers. King and Ballow's whole strategy rested on trying to break them off from the other unions, and they weren't able to do it."

The San Francisco drivers union, Teamsters Local 921, knew that war was coming when, after hiring King and Ballow, the Newspaper Agency began to get rid of the young people who walk the paper routes. "First they get rid of the kids," explains Andy Cirkelis, then secretary-treasurer of Local 921, "and bring in adults to drive the routes instead, throwing the papers from cars. Then they get rid of our drivers, since they can get the adults to come pick up their papers from a central distribution point. Once they weaken the drivers, it's much easier for them to go after the other unions."

By the time the strike began, however, San Francisco unions were well-prepared. Cirkelis had won important community support by defending the jobs of youth carriers. Even before the strike started, the Council of Newspaper Unions began publishing its own newspaper, the Free Press. Major advertisers like Macy's and the Emporium hedged their bets by placing full page ads in both the strikers' newspaper, and the much thinner Chronicle and Examiner, which management continued publishing.

Tensions ran high as management hired over 350 Huffmaster guards, and began advertising for strikebreakers. In Mountain View, Kirk Wilson, a striking driver, was electrocuted after mistakenly cutting power lines into an Agency distribution facility. After twelve days, however, the two newspapers decided to call it quits.

Hall called it "a victory, given what our members were looking at." Rosario says "they were out to destroy us, and we stopped them."

The biggest compromise was made by the drivers themselves, who agreed that after 90 days, management could begin to eliminate their jobs by attrition. For two years after the strike conflict continued to rage, particularly between the agency and the drivers and pressmen.

In the years since the strike, a new, largely immigrant workforce was hired as independent contractors, to drive delivery routes and throw papers from cars. While the Agency's intention was to undermine the leverage of Teamster drivers, these new employees proved to be more militant that it expected. They've conducted at least two lightening strikes to push up rates, and are now discussing union affiliation.

Finally, last year the Guild and other unions agreed to an unprecedented contract extension through 2005, with 3% wage increases annually. "I think the San Francisco papers are interested in avoiding a battle with their employees when they're going to have to fight a lot harder with Knight-Ridder," Hall speculates. In the last year, the chain has moved its national headquarters from Miami to San Jose, making the Mercury-News its flagship publication. In addition, the corporation bought the Contra Costa Times, giving it a big foothold in the suburbs of the northern Bay Area, threatening to surround the circulation area of the other two big dailies.

K-R also bought the Monterey Herald. Newsroom workers at both the Mercury News and the Herald are represented by the San Jose Newspaper Guild. After taking over the Monterey daily, management terminated all its Guild-represented employees, and told them they were free to reapply for their old jobs. Some were rehired, and others weren't. Negotiations have been going on for a new contract since then, with K-R demanding massive changes in what had been one of the Guild's best agreements.

The Bay Area Guild, with the able coordination of organizer Erin Poh, finally reorganized the Oakland Tribune. The Guild unit there was destroyed a decade ago in the paper's purchase by the Alameda Newspaper Group, a chain belonging to newspaper magnate Dean Singleton.

Over the intervening years, workers at the other papers in the ANG chain, including the Fremont Argus, the Tri-Valley Herald, the Alameda Times-Star, the Hayward Daily Review, and the Peninsula Times-Herald have chosen Guild representation. In October, the union finally won a contract covering all of them. The pay scale is still far below the standard in San Francisco and San Jose, and includes a merit pay system under which management can pay different salaries to workers doing the same job. But the Guild sees the agreement nevertheless as a big victory, given the intense opposition it faced for so long, and a chance to improve conditions over time.

In the past two years the Guild won contracts as well at the McClatchy newspapers in the valley -- the Sacramento, Fresno and Modesto Bees. There also the company had refused to renegotiate contracts for a number of years, and the union had to agree to a modified merit pay system as the price of renewed agreements.

Broadcasting unions haven't been exempt from the labor wars. ABC, and its local affiliates KGO-TV and KGO radio, have been operating without a contract covering their technical staff since the old one expired 19 months ago. Disney now owns ABC, and insisted that it substitute its own health plan for the network's union-negotiated medical coverage. ABC, however, refused to provide details of the coverage, and the plan was recently rejected by thousands of Disney World employees, who have been covered by it for years.

When ABC's technical union, NABET, struck for one day to force the network to provide more details, Disney locked the workers out across the country. Strikebreakers were brought in to replace them. When union workers began following the scab crews, holding up picketsigns on camera behind newscasters on location, a California judge prohibited them from picketing and chanting slogans.

Behind the immediate issue of the medical plan, however, lie deeper and more difficult conflicts, which highlight the impact of changes in technology and the workforce on media unions generally. ABC is proposing to NABET that the union would not have sole jurisdiction over any piece of equipment containing a microprocessor. These days, cameras, sound boards, and even cart players have chips controlling their operation. Disney's proposal would essentially allow anyone to use most broadcast equipment, seriously eroding the union's control over the work, and most likely leading to replacement of NABET members with other non-union workers.

In addition, the network wants even greater freedom than ever to use contract workers instead of hiring its own employees directly on a permanent basis. While the union represents many daily-hire workers, they often don't qualify for benefits, and have no job security.

The use of daily hires has been mushrooming in the broadcast industry. The present contract limits the percentage of technical work which they perform for the network to 14%. At NBC, however, the union was forced to agree to 26% in the last contract, due to expire again next year. Now ABC wants 42%. Each network is trying to leapfrog over the other, as the union seeks to keep job security from becoming a distant memory.

Technicians at CBS are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as are the local technical employees of KTVU, KRON and KPIX. Despite jurisdictional competition in the past, IBEW members have been prominent in the KGO picketlines, supporting their fellow unionists in NABET.

Despite the difficult environment, Bay Area newspaper and broadcasting unions have been able to maintain a wage standard significantly above the salary level for non-union workers. When NABET organized the Spanish-language KDTV Channel 14 a year ago, the station paid technical workers about $8/hour, according to NABET Local 51 president Kevin Wilson. It was a bitter conflict, which saw a popular employee fired for union activity, and a year spent in negotiations. In the end, however, workers at the station won raises up to 35%. "At non-union stations, wages average $10/hour," Wilson says. "Our scale starts at $22."

In the Chronicle and Examiner newsrooms, salaries start at over $600/week, and workers get to top scale, close to $1000/week, within six years. The ANG papers pay significantly less. At a non-union newspaper, wages depend on relations with supervisors, and can vary widely. But the bottom is pretty low -- $400/week, according to Carl Hall.

Rebecca Rhine, local negotiator for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), believes the only way to protect union salary levels is to find ways of maintaining union strength in the face of the introduction of new technology. AFTRA represents the on-air talent in broadcasting, as well as directors, writers and producers. "In my opinion," she says, "unions don't have the option of stopping technological change. But we can ensure that the new jobs it creates are union jobs."

That's still a controversial position in a union town where Harry Bridges, the famous longshoremen's leader, signed an agreement in the mid-1960s which allowed the introduction of new container technology on the waterfront. Longshore jobs declined drastically in numbers in the years following, but Bridges always asserted that the union couldn't stop the advance of technology, only ensure that the strength of the union and its jurisdiction were maintained.

"Sometimes it's a battle with our own members as much as anything else," Rhine explains. "It's hard for people who have done their jobs a certain way for many years to adjust and learn new skills. People are always suspicious of anything that seems to increase their workload. But when we say we want to take this new stuff, and become the most valuable workforce in the company, our members get it."

Those changes often bring about conflicts between unions, when broadcast employers, for instance, say they want on-air workers, represented by one union, to do editing in mobile TV vans or carry a small videocam, work which belongs to another one.

Most media unions, however, are looking hard at the jobs being created by new, especially digital technology. AFTRA already represents radio and television personalities and recording artists, who are often hired to appear on CD-ROMS, and even as voices in voicemail systems. As a result, the union has been able to sign contracts with producers of the new media, when its members take the position that they won't do the work unless it's under union contract, receiving union benefits.

"For us," Rhine notes, "it's a constant education process. The good jobs that everyone craves are a result of producers being forced to respect the conditions the union has established."

Reliance on the activism of members is the hallmark of a union that's even more non-traditional in the way it organizes -- the National Writers Union, affiliated to the United Auto Workers.

The NWU is an organization of free-lancers, who write material ranging from newspaper and magazine articles, to technical manuals, to novels and poetry. Because its members are paid as independent contractors, it's even illegal for the union to try to establish payment schedules for writers. The Federal government interprets that as price-fixing, putting lowly writers in the same basket as monopoly corporations.

The union has a few agreements with progressive national magazines like The Nation, Mother Jones and In These Times, which set freelance rates and specify the rights of writers at those individual publications. The union did have a similar agreement with the SF Weekly when it was independently owned, but lost it after the New Times chain bought the paper.

Instead of bargaining directly, the NWU relies on providing information to members, including the official payment schedules of publishers, sample contracts for the sale of books and articles, and a history of the problems experienced by writers with different media outlets. "We focus on trying to change conditions genre by genre," says Bruce Hartford, NWU's national secretary-treasurer. "There are way too many publications out there to bargain with them individually anyway."

The union maintains an active grievance division, which specializes in collecting payment for writers from deadbeat publications. It also handles complaints which affect writers as a group. Northern Lights, for instance, which charges clients for finding and downloading electronic versions of requested articles, pays nothing to the writers who produce them. The union has been battling the company for royalties. It has also fought a long-running legal battle with the New York Times to win additional pay for writers for electronic publication rights for their articles, rights the newspaper claims it already owns when it purchases the print rights.

Here again, the development of a new contract workforce in the media industry creates the potential for jurisdictional conflict between unions. On the one hand, the NWU represents freelancers whose income often depends on selling articles to publications like newspapers, which also employ union reporters. The Guild, on the other hand, has an interest in preventing newspapers from using freelancers on an unlimited basis. The work done by full-time reporters and photographers can easily be subcontracted to freelancers, and in non-union publications, like the alternative weeklies, it often is.

The Newspaper Guild and the Writers Union have cooperated in the past, in trying to present a common front to the newspapers. During contract negotiations with the Examiner and the Chronicle, the Guild has asked the papers to incorporate the standard Writers Union contract language protecting free-lancers. Hall says "the employers always just say no," while Hartford notes that "the Examiner and the Chronicle use the anti-trust law as an excuse to refuse to talk to us directly."

Marcy Sheiner, co-coordinator for NWU's Bay Area Local 3 (the union's third largest), says membership is up to about 600. The local has three divisions, for journalists, tech writers, and authors of poetry and fiction. It puts on seminars to help members with everything from tax problems to contracts and grievances.

At local progressive media institutions, unions have generally held their own. The union at KPFA, which for years belonged to the independent and progressive United Electrical Workers, decided two years ago to affiliate with the Communication Workers. Philip Maldari, one of three shop stewards at the station, says workers needed more support from their parent union than they were getting from the UE. Last year for the first time, the station's union faced a professional, hired negotiator across the bargaining table. In addition, the Pacifica Foundation (which owns the station) briefly hired the American Consulting Group, a notorious unionbusting firm, to give advice on negotiating strategy.

In the end, the union agreed to a new contract with significant wage raises. New workers hired to work on specific programs will become at-will employees, however, with no seniority rights to bump into other jobs if their programs are terminated. While this is standard procedure in commercial radio and television stations, at KPFA, where the salary level is considerably lower, job security based on seniority had historically been viewed as the tradeoff. Unpaid staff were also excluded from the bargaining unit.

"We kept our closed shop," Maldari notes, "with no hiring of casual employees, and maintained job security for the vast majority. Our old contract had good provisions, but much of it was unenforceable. So we were very happy, on the whole, with the new agreement, and with CWA."

And last year, the Institute for Global Communications became the first union internet service provider when the staff voted to join the San Francisco city workers union, Service Employees Local 790.

The variety and number of Bay Area media unions has created the space for experimentation and the development of new ideas about how media workers can be organized, and how to enforce workplace rights in an era of rapidly developing technology. But fragmentation is also, in the long run, the source of enormous weakness, especially given the power of enormous media monopolies.

Some media unions are beginning to merge as a result. The International Typographical Union, the country's oldest labor organization, which used to represent linotype operators in the era when newspapers were printed with metal type, joined the Newspaper Guild. Both organizations ceased being independent unions and affiliated with the Communications Workers of America in the last couple of years. NABET also joined CWA.

CWA is the union for workers in the telephone and communications industry. These mergers are bringing under one roof media workers whose jobs depend on the network of electronic communications, and the workers who build, service and operate that network.

During the 1994 newspaper strike, the most potent weapon of the unions was their unity -- the fact that they all belonged to the Council of Newspaper Unions. Although they had individual contracts, the agreements all expired at the same time, and the unions all negotiated together. When they struck, they agreed that no union would break the common front and return to work without a settlement for all the rest.

By contrast, during the ABC dispute, while NABET members picket KGO, AFTRA members, who have no protection in their contract for refusing to cross a picketline, continue to do their jobs as usual.

The bargaining power of unions would be greatly increased if they were able to create councils like that at the two San Francisco newspapers, with common expiration dates for their contracts, and language which protects the right of workers who refuse to cross the picketlines of other unions. If that arrangement existed at the television networks, ABC would never have locked out its technicians.

Ultimately, it would serve the interests of media workers nationally if they belonged to one union, the organizational solution chosen by media workers in most other countries. The progressive union federation which arose from the apartheid era in South Africa, for instance, uses the guiding principle "one industry -- one union."

At AFTRA, which is in the process of voting to merge with the Screen Actors Guild, Rebecca Rhine believes that "we should all be in one union," although she doesn't see that happening in the near future. Meanwhile, Hall also has a vision of "one seamless, scrappy group," facing media employers generally.

It's not necessarily unions which have made the most progress in this direction. Ethnic media organizations, including associations of African-American, Latino and Asian-American journalists, cross craft lines and often have a greater connection to communities of color. They also, however, include management personnel, and in the event of bitter workplace conflicts like that in Detroit, have internal conflicts over whose side to take.

Nevertheless, newspaper unions made important connections to the broader labor movement, and to community organizations during the newspaper strike. NABET is making them now during its battle with ABC. That's natural -- all unions look for allies when they're under attack. It's much harder, however, to maintain those connections after the struggle is over, and even more so, to respond to attacks on communities on their own set of issues. "Like any union, we respond better and more in mass during a crisis," Hall says.

While media unions last June saw a natural self-interest in opposing Proposition 226, for instance, which attacked their ability to contribute to candidates during elections, there was much less interest in opposing Proposition 227, which attacked bilingual education, and was opposed strongly by the Latino and Asian communities.

Permanent alliances between unions and working-class communities are being built, but it's still an uphill battle. While union leaders and activists think they're a good idea, they rely on greater political consciousness among union members themselves. Transforming unions from business organizations, in which members exchange dues for services, into social movements requires a change in thinking at the base. Members have to view themselves as participants in a movement to defend the interests of all working-class people, both inside unions and in the broader community around them.

Educating members and talking about issues beyond the workplace is difficult in any union. In media unions, it's even harder, especially in those unions whose members produce the media's content -- the writers, reporters, photographers, newscasters, directors, and on-air personalities. There's tremendous pressure to adopt a detached "neutral" or "objective" attitude towards social movements, as those terms are defined by employers. The cost of abandoning that "neutrality," and acting as a social activist as well as a reporter, for instance, can be a career put on hold.

The AFL-CIO's education department has recently produced a new education program, called Common Sense Economics, which helps union members understand how large corporations have come to dominate the US economy and political system. If unions begin to use that program, it could go a long way toward helping members to become conscious and well-informed social activists.

But media unions don't operate in isolation. What's missing is a progressive pole -- an organization or grouping of media activists, committed to the interests of workers and their unions, but with an agenda that addresses content as well. That pole could help to define the interests of people in the media as workers, while at the same time, developing ties between media workers and other social and community movements. It could help to create a new vision of what it means to be a progressive media activist.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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