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Cheers (And Tears) for the Union Effort at the Dallas Morning News

If they had a union on the Titanic, would that have affected the iceberg?

Journalists at Dallas’ main daily newspaper and its Spanish-language cousin want to go union. I feel for them. The state of the newspaper business has made me crazy, too.

After months of quiet effort, a majority of 130 newsroom employees at the Dallas Morning News and Al Dia have signed union authorization cards designating the Newsguild-CWA as their bargaining agent. Organizers say they hope A.H. Belo Corporation, owner of both daily newspapers, will enter a collective bargaining agreement voluntarily, without a big fight.

Reporter Dave Tarrant, a distinguished former foreign correspondent and war reporter who is a leader in the union effort, describes a long, patient campaign leading to this moment: “We have had a lot of discussions over the past year. There is no easy way to build a union,” he says. “It’s all one-on-one discussions, weekend nights, spending time with people and listening to their issues. It has brought a lot of us together.”

I asked if severance pay is a major bargaining priority. Severance in the event of dissolution of the company was the focus of an organizing campaign by the same union at the Dallas Observer shortly before I was laid off there in May. I ratted out that effort. Tarrant called the severance issue “huge” but said it is only one of an entire menu of issues the organizers consider important.

I asked Belo for comment. They sent me this, over the signature of Morning News publisher Grant Moise: “We are taking the letter under advisement. It’s our privilege to provide a world-class news report to the people of North Texas and we will continue to do so.”

Does “news report” mean newspaper? Yikes.

In the last few years, legacy print publications all over the county and some online publications have been targets of a burst of union organizing not seen since the early days of the Newspaper Guild, in the 1930s. A report by the Neiman Foundation at Harvard last year called it “one of the bright spots in a labor movement that has been declining for decades.”

Eh. Maybe. I know snitching on the guild to management at the Observer was one of the hardest things this aging Detroit-native liberal ever had to do. A major part of newspaper culture for me was always a strong sense of the good of the ship. You can bitch and moan and even rebel, but you don’t drill holes in the hull of your own boat. I was afraid the effort there would kill the paper.

The News is a very different story, a much larger enterprise that still has some margin for movement. And unions don’t have to be poison pills. They can help rationalize the operation and give employees a stake in things.

I was a very proud member of the United Autoworkers for several years as a young man — a really great union then, long before some of its more recent ethical escapades.

I was a member of the newspaper guild for the better part of a decade. It was an OK union in spite of a tendency by journalists to be jealous back-stabbing bitches who wouldn’t know solidarity if it bit them in the hind quarters. Nobody’s perfect.

But those unions, both of them, were built on an assumption of big fat profits flowing in over the transom almost like an act of God. The big problem was how to divvy up the money.

I have learned not to talk about those times in the newsrooms of today. To young practitioners today, it sounds like an old guy bragging about how much richer he was than them when he was their age. And we were. Well, not rich, obviously, but it was a lot easier for us. Who wants to hear that?

My problem is that I also have some history at dying newspapers. My experience tells me that trying to use collective bargaining to tame and civilize that process is like calling for civility in a theater fire.

Severance? Sure, if it came down to it, they would agree to all kinds of severance. Healthcare for life and free European vacations. Because guess what? When they go out of business, they’re gone. They don’t got no money no more. Take your severance agreement to the Tom Thumb store and see how much you can get for it in groceries.

The end, when it arrives, is going to be the end. The end isn’t here yet at the Observer or the News. But the trick is not doing stuff that will hasten its arrival.

I find a healthy difference of opinion among colleagues and former colleagues in the newspaper business about this burst of union organizing. Take the issue of cutbacks and layoffs, for example.

Tarrant told me over 100 people have left the newsroom at the News since 2018, some voluntarily, most not. He said a major goal of the organizing effort is what he called “stability,” which I would interpret as fewer people out the door.belo-operating-losses

The problem with that is that when revenues are diminishing, the last thing the investors want is stability, if by stability you mean fewer people out the door. If the money’s down, the investors want more people out the door. A union standing in the way may not be ownership’s single biggest problem, sort of like a union on the Titanic, but it’s another disincentive for remaining aboard ship yourself.

When the first quarter 2020 financial report for A.H. Belo was published last month, the good news was that Belo had a net loss of only $1.6 million in the first quarter, compared to a net loss of $2.1 million in the first quarter of 2019. You see where this is going.

There are those in my profession who tell me that even if the longer outlook is gloomy — or especially if it is gloomy — collective bargaining is the one and only means by which worker bees can have a measure of control over their own destiny. I get that.

My own approach, however, when I was an editorial board member at the Dallas Times Herald during its end times, was different. In its glory days, the paper had a full-time staff of waiters who served coffee and treats to bigwigs when they showed up for editorial board meetings with us. When the waiters were fired, I just started bringing in the trays myself.

Nobody told me to stop. I was there at the end. Some guys weren’t. And now, depending on what happens, I’m not a half-bad waiter.

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