After 135 Years, the L.A. Times Is Unionizing. What Took So Long?
Ted Soqui

After 135 Years, the L.A. Times Is Unionizing. What Took So Long?

The last straw was when the company took away its employees' accrued vacation.

Journalists at the Los Angeles Times were saving up their time off, using it as a financial cushion in the event their jobs were sacrificed in a future round of layoffs. 

The new policy — so-called unlimited vacation — meant the Times' parent company, tronc, no longer had to pay out for unused time.

When unveiling the policy, tronc told staffers to use up all of their vacation by the end of the year. Voila! A form of compensation was taken away, a guaranteed benefit replaced with a policy that, according to employees, is unreliable and unevenly applied.

Like many newspapers, the Times has been through years of high-profile corporate restructuring — including bankruptcy and takeovers, layoffs and lawsuits, deep cost cuts and a revolving door of publishers, editors, owners and CEOs. Top talent has left the paper. Health care costs have risen. The newsroom hasn't had an across-the-board salary increase since around 2009.

"There's a point when you're being foolish," says one Times journalist, "where you're a chump for allowing this trend to continue and not demanding a voice."

Times staffers decided this year it was finally time to unionize; this week, the effort became public after a note about the union push was placed on each staffer's desk. "A majority of the newsroom has already signed cards supporting representation by the News Guild," the note said, "and we look forward to gathering more signatures in the weeks ahead."

Major dailies such as The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal unionized decades ago. Locally, employees at the Southern California NPR affiliate KPCC and here at the L.A. Weekly are represented by unions. And newer digital-age outlets, including Gizmodo (formerly Gawker) Media, Vice Media and the Huffington Post, have unionized in recent years.

Why, an inquiring mind may wonder, has it taken the Times' newsroom 135 years to do the same?

Labor historians say anti-union politics are deeply ingrained in the Times' history. The eagle and slogan engraved at the entrance to the L.A. Times Building ("Equal Rights, True Industrial Freedom"), which the union committee have adopted on its letterhead, are the legacy of fabled Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, a robber baron whom historian Errol Wayne Stevens called "the Los Angeles business community's preeminent union hater and the godfather of the open-shop movement" of his time.

"Of course, for a long time the L.A. Times was a right-wing bastion, and probably not just the publisher," Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara, said in an email to the Weekly.

Under Otis, the newspaper mounted such an aggressive attack on the Pullman railroad strike of 1894 that the American Railway Union moved its pickets from the rail yards to the Times building. In 1910 a bomber linked to an ironworkers union used 16 sticks of dynamite and a windup alarm clock and destroyed the old Times building at Broadway and First Street, killing 21 and injuring many more.

Of course, a lot has changed since General Otis died in 1917.

The leaders of the union committee at the Times say the newspaper went without a union for as long as it has because the Times was once known for paying some of the highest salaries in print journalism and offering benefits to match. The deep pockets of prior owners kept the unions out, the journalists say.

"The thinking was the conditions were so great, why would we need a union," says one of the union leaders on staff. "Obviously, things have changed."

Three journalists at the Times who are leaders of the unionization effort spoke to the Weekly; their names are being withheld because they fear retribution from tronc.

Marisa Kollias, tronc's vice president of communications, declined to comment on the union organizing drive. So did Hillary Manning, communications director for the Times.

Richard Wells, associate professor at the Harry Van Ardsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College, has studied the trend of unionizations in digital media. Wells says the Times effort differs from the efforts of emerging digital media in that it's a legacy outlet that's on the defensive against changes in management and the restructuring of ownership.

"From a labor perspective, it's exciting and in a way hopeful," he says, "because the reporters and editors and other folks [who would be] represented by the Guild are beginning to collectively fight back against some of this."

He adds: "Ultimately it's about job security, stability and pay. But also in this business it's about independence and protecting the craft of journalism."

As one of the union leaders says, "We're not doing anything out of the ordinary. We're joining the mainstream here."

According to a statement on the Los Angeles Times Guild website, tronc has launched an anti-union campaign and, so far, "It’s rather primitive stuff,"

"They’re using scare tactics." one staffer says. "It's old-fashioned stuff you'd see at factories and loading docks. It's complete bullshit."

The journalists described having to sit through group meetings in which supervisors read or paraphrased talking points from "anti-union" flyers such as this:

The union leaders say that bad management at the top was a major motivating factor for staffers to sign union cards; editor-in-chief and publisher Davan Maharaj was unpopular in the newsroom. Last year, a lengthy Los Angeles Magazine profile of Maharaj reported that he held onto investigative stories, delaying their publication for months and even years, and drove away top talent in the process. It also alleged that he made "inappropriate remarks" toward women, which included "appraising the attractiveness of female staffers."

In August, tronc fired Maharaj and three of his top deputies: a managing editor, deputy managing editor and assistant managing editor of investigations. Also in August, the unionization effort gathered steam at an invitation-only meeting of around 100 journalists at the Doubletree Hotel.

If Maharaj's dismissal was meant to squash the union push, it might have had the opposite effect. "Davan was one of the pettiest managers people have ever seen," one of the leaders says. "Not having him here makes people feel better [about signing a union card]."

Another union leader says: "If we had a guild, we don't think [the lengthy internal investigation that led to Maharaj's dismissal] would even be necessary. There would be an employee-management committee, a grievance process, a protective forum to address problems with a manager. There was none of that in the past five years, and it was horrible."

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