Union of Local Paper 'The Columbian' Breaks Down After Two Years of Management Stonewalling
Management "never intended to reach agreement", says a former reporter, as union employees vote to disband.
Most unionised employees of The Columbian, a local daily in Washington State, have been laid off or quit in the last two years, shrinking the newsroom by more than half. They won a union vote by 19 to 8 in October 2019, but subsequently found management to be “surface bargaining”.
Two years later, the union has voted to disband:
“They’ve been surface bargaining from the time we first sat at the table,” [union rep and former Columbian reporter Katie] Gillespie told the Labor Press. Surface bargaining is labor law parlance for going through the motions—meeting, but never meaningfully negotiating. That’s illegal under federal labor law because it violates the law’s requirement that an employer bargain in good faith, which means negotiating with the intent of reaching agreement. Even though the union no longer represents the group, an open investigation continues by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) into whether The Columbian broke the law in this case.
I’m usually focused on positive union news in this newsletter; the latest newsroom to vote to unionise, the next to be voluntarily recognised by management.
However, the recent wave of newsroom unionisation will inevitably also have its setbacks, which are just as necessary to acknowledge.
Despite bargaining over such a long period, and when other newsrooms were building momentum by reaching agreements and winning gains, employees never agreed a new contract, with management calling their demands “unrealistic”. “It became clear The Columbian never intended to reach agreement,” Gillespie told LaborPress:
For 15 months the union bargaining team met monthly for at least six hours with top management and outside attorney Michael Zinser of Nashville. Some sessions lasted two days, eight hours a day, Gillespie said. And in all that time, The Columbian never offered any improvement, not even a cost of living increase. It also rejected every union proposal, no matter how small, even a proposal for a union bulletin board. One exception: After rejecting union proposals to improve the company’s paid time off policy for holidays, The Columbian unilaterally announced a similar improvement—for nonunion employees. The union objected, at which point the company made the improvement for union-represented employees too.
Don McIntosh of Labor Press estimates that “with over 140 hours of lawyer time just at the bargaining table—plus prep time and travel time and expenses before the pandemic shifted bargaining online—The Columbian likely spent over $150,000 just to say no to the union proposals.”
It’s clear that the support of the NLRB is crucial in highlighting and intervening in such cases of inflexibility by management, which undermines any chance for workers to balance the power dynamic (which they have a legal right to do). But whether the success of bigger national, and effectively international online newsrooms can bolster that of smaller local ones remains to be seen. The work done this decade may answer that question.