The Dallas Morning News has voted to unionize, becoming the second newspaper in Texas to do so in almost 30 years. The vote was 84-28, which meant about three out of every four staffers were in favor of joining the union.
Eligibility extended to anyone in the newsroom and at its Spanish language sister paper Al Día who wasn’t managing any employees. The union roster includes reporters, photographers, copy editors, researchers, designers, archivists, and more. The results were encouraging to organizers who have been working for more than a year to bring this to fruition. The unionization effort has grown popular at newspapers and online journalism outfits across the nation, but it remains rare in Texas. Only the defunct San Antonio Light was a union shop. Now the News joins up. Forty miles west, in Fort Worth, the Star-Telegram hopes to be next.
Dave Tarrant, a longtime reporter who was one of the four employees on the elections committee, said the goal is to elect a bargaining committee of about seven people and begin working with management by the middle of next month.
“It comes at a really, really important time, because this is—as you know from what’s happened at D—an industry that’s still going through uncertain times,” Tarrant said, referencing this magazine’s own pandemic-related layoffs and salary reductions from back in March. “We’re looking forward to trying to work out some security for our people.”
That security is the main target. During the last round of layoffs, in 2019, Tarrant said, veteran staffers were given 15 minutes notice and a maximum severance package of 10 weeks. That may have helped mobilize the newsroom to begin organizing, but this has been germinating for years. Tarrant and a few others manage a spreadsheet of all the recent departures. Since January of 2018, he says, 111 employees have left the newsroom voluntarily, were laid off, or took buyouts. In a newsroom of about 150, including management, that churn was alarming to those who remained. (That’s strictly turnover. Obviously, most of those positions have been replaced.)
“The reason many people end up leaving is because there’s no path forward financially,” Tarrant says. “Many of the young people come and work here for several years and there’s no raises. The people in the middle, the mid-career level, also haven’t gotten raises in years. Even though they love the job, they’re forced out.”
And when those people leave, jobs stay empty for prolonged periods of time—the City Hall beat has been empty for months, filled in by federal courts reporter Kevin Krause, for instance—and institutional knowledge goes elsewhere. The union would like to set salary floors for first-year, third-year, and fifth-year employees.
Tarrant predicted my next question. Where is the money coming from? In the past two years, its stock has fallen from a high of $5.75 per share in April 2018 to $1.43 this month. In July, the News’ parent company, A.H. Belo Corp., revealed a 25 percent decline in second-quarter revenue. It recorded a year-over-year net loss of $3.4 million, and its revenue was down about $12 million. And it ended the three-month period with about $6 million less cash on hand. The $42.6 million in cash it recorded at the end of the quarter was buoyed by last year’s sale of its downtown property for $28 million. CEO Robert Decherd said the company would spend $8 million offsetting expected declines in revenue in 2020. (Third quarter financials should be made public later this month.)
There was an encouraging development, though. Digital subscriptions had increased to 43,590, which amounted to a 38 percent year-over-year jump. The $300,000 that yielded helped offset a 7.6 percent decline in home delivery and single copy sales. Meanwhile, the company saved almost $3 million on salary reductions and benefits before it restored them. To the supporters of the union, that subscriber jump and the savings were because of the newsroom.
“I think if we’re putting the future of the paper in a business model that calls for subscriptions, then the newsroom is where those subscriptions come from,” Tarrant said. “We should be making sure we have a strong and stable newsroom.”
The unionization comes at a critical time for the paper. Editor Mike Wilson announced his resignation last month, leaving the future of the top editor’s job in question. Decherd and publisher Grant Moise tried to convince the staff that adding a union to the business would complicate decision-making and not be the best path forward for an industry in flux that sometimes requires quick action to right the ship. After all, one of the surefire results of unionizing is that it will likely drive up wages during a difficult time for a struggling industry. That spooks management.
But Tarrant says the newsroom had tried to get its voice heard in the past to no avail. There was the disastrous 2017 decision to outsource copy editing and headline work to Austin-based Gatehouse Media. The copy desk was blown up in layoffs and the newsroom felt like it wasn’t consulted. That resulted in poor work performed by an out-of-town company with little knowledge of Dallas.
In-house groups meant to bring together management and the rank-and-file never really translated into input on big, top-down decisions. The union won’t have a say in who becomes the next editor of the paper, but it should have a say in new policies that stem the churn that has plagued the newsroom for years. At least, that’s the hope.
“If we could just stave off, hold off on some of these decisions that come down basically as a fait accompli without any discussion, I think will be helpful for the company, too,” Tarrant said. “We believe they should’ve been doing it all along. But now it’s going to be part of the process going forward.”