Labor leaders to GateHouse: Agree to a fair SJ-R contract

As we prepare to march in our third Springfield Labor Day Parade, our Guild unit has received a major show of support from unions and labor organizations throughout the state.

Officials from 10 major unions and labor organizations — including the Illinois Education Association, AFSCME Council 31, the Illinois AFL-CIO and police and firefighter unions — recently wrote a letter to the editors of The State Journal-Register and Illinois Times calling on GateHouse to work out a fair contract covering Guild members in the SJ-R newsroom in Springfield, Illinois. The letter appears at the bottom of this post. We give thanks to these labor leaders for supporting good journalism as an essential component of a stable democracy.

This show of support is bound to ripple throughout the community, and it should be a strong indication to GateHouse Media officials in New York that the general public values quality journalism in the capital city. Readers of the paper far and wide don’t want to see GateHouse siphon the lifeblood from the The State Journal-Register in the name of profit. Readers already have seen printing of the paper outsourced to Peoria and page design outsourced to Texas while a steady stream of talented staffers either left the paper or were shown the door.

Readers want to see profits generated by the SJ-R’s remaining hardworking employees spent on more than lavish bonuses for top GateHouse officials and the acquisition of more newspapers. A good first contract with newsroom employees would bring stability for workers and readers alike.

With negotiations for a first contract in their third year, pressure is being brought to bear on the company in various ways. Literature distributed by our members at Springfield festivals and the recent Illinois State Fair call on our supporters to phone Publisher Clarissa Williams at (217) 788-1326 to express their displeasure at GateHouse’s resistance to a fair contract.

Our next bargaining session is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 30, and it appears that a federal mediator may be present to assist in the process. Both sides have agreed to request this free assistance.

Here is the text of the LETTER TO THE EDITOR submitted to SJ-R and Illinois Times by the labor leaders:

September 1, 2015

Since Abraham Lincoln’s time, Springfield residents have relied on local newspapers to provide information and insight about local and state matters.

Because Springfield is home to state office holders and their staffs, these newspapers had substantial influence on the debate of issues affecting all Illinoisans.

The State Journal-Register (SJR) is the last daily paper standing in Mr. Lincoln’s hometown and it is crucial the SJR remain viable, employing first-rate journalists and presenting high quality news and analysis.

To achieve that goal, there must be a fair settlement of the contract between Gatehouse Media, owner of the State Journal-Register, and newsroom employees represented by the United Media Guild.

For more than three years, the employees have been trying to negotiate a contract to allow the SJR to continue to publish a high quality newspaper and, over time, boost circulation to the point that reporter positions eliminated since Gatehouse bought the paper can be restored.

Many of these employees have logged decades of service to the SJR and its readers, remaining loyal despite Gatehouse’s elimination of the copy desk and other important newsroom positions.

We urge everyone who believes a great city deserves a great daily newspaper to call the publisher and insist that the SJR negotiate a fair contract with the newsroom employees.

Cinda Klickna
President, Illinois Education Association

Dan Montgomery
President, Illinois Federation of Teachers

Michael Carrigan
President, Illinois AFL-CIO

Pat Devaney
President, Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois

Roberta Lynch
Executive Director, AFSCME Council 31

Sean Stott
Director of Governmental Affairs, Laborers’ Midwest Region

Alice Johnson
Executive Director, Illinois Nurses Association

Christine Boardman
President, SEIU Local 73

Sean Smoot
President, Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association

Mike Stout
Business Manager, Illinois State Employees Association

Guild brings journalists’ concerns to GateHouse annual meeting

United Media Guild leaders brought the concerns of its Springfield Unit – concerns shared by Guild members at other GateHouse properties – to the attention of company officials May 21, 2015, at the first annual meeting of GateHouse’s parent, New Media Inc., in New York City.

My impressions from our visit to Manhattan ranged from optimism to disappointment. As I already have told some colleagues at The State Journal-Register in Springfield, I came away from the meeting viewing GateHouse officials not as evil people, but rather as businessmen and businesswomen living in their own world. It’s our job to convince them that improvements in our world will mean improvements in their world.

IMG_0075

This view of the New York skyline, which could be seen from the downtown building where GateHouse Media/New Media held its 2015 annual meeting, includes a section of Central Park.

GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis and New Media CEO Mike Reed told us that journalists have an important role in the health and future success of the company. They say they want to retain talent. But they seem to be detached from the day-to-day world of journalists and their financial struggles.

To give you an idea of how I came to these conclusions, let me describe our visit to the annual meeting. UMG administrative officer Shannon Duffy, Journal Star Guild activist Matt Buedel and I flew out to New York the day before the meeting and stayed overnight in a room at the Hilton Hotel, the same place where the meeting was to be held at 8 the next morning. (Shannon’s description of our visit is available here on the United Media Guild website.)

We had printed up hundreds of flyers to distribute to investors going into the meeting. This being the first meeting, we thought GateHouse had rented a big room in this posh downtown hotel to impress the investment community. But when we checked out the meeting room, it was a big letdown. It was a small room with 20 chairs. I guess GateHouse/New Media wasn’t really expecting many people to attend.

The next morning, Shannon and I showed up at the meeting site about 45 minutes early. We were immediately greeted by a well-dressed security guard. “Who are you?” he asked in a firm voice. We informed him we were stockholders in the company. The guard then left us alone.

IMG_0085

Here is the meeting room that GateHouse Media/New Media used for its annual meeting in downtown New York City.

We went through some wrangling before we were allowed in the tiny meeting room. A man working for GateHouse/New Media said we needed to produce something called a “broker’s statement” before being admitted. We didn’t have this document and hadn’t heard of it before, but were given documents by our broker that the broker assured us would be sufficient. Just when we thought we would be locked out of the meeting, Shannon spotted one of the corporate officers, Polly Sack, who recognized Shannon from a previous annual meeting and basically waived us in.

That hurdle cleared, we walked in and sat down. Almost immediately, Kirk Davis walked up to us and introduced himself. We talked for about 15 minutes. He was friendly and polite. Shannon stressed that we weren’t there to disrupt the proceedings but to represent the concerns of workers. Davis talked a lot about how he is fighting to preserve revenue for his newspapers amid pressure for rate cuts from companies that produce newspaper inserts. He talked about the precarious nature of the newspaper industry.

Without being prompted, he said to us, “Your main concern is wages, right?” Yes, that’s right, we said. I described how many young journalists at the SJ-R are paid only about $30,000 a year and are struggling to decide whether they can remain in the business and support their families. Others are struggling after going 7½ years without a raise.

I described how the SJ-R has lost many valued professionals through downsizing and frustrations about pay. He looked down and had a pained look on his face. His expression made it seem like he was almost embarrassed when I mentioned we haven’t had a pay increase for almost eight years. (Of course, Davis and Reed have continued to get high salaries and annual bonuses all that time.) He nodded when I noted that the SJ-R continues to be one of the company’s most viewed papers on the Internet, even after the acquisition of several much-larger papers.

The most telling quote of the day, to me, was his response to our salary concerns: “We have to figure that one out.” After that quote, I would offer another telling reaction. Shannon told Davis that the Springfield Unit consistently receives a certain message from the company at the bargaining table: If you don’t like the pay situation at the newspaper, you should just leave.

Davis bristled at that description. That’s not the message the company wants to send, he said. The company values its employees, he said.

Indeed.

I personally believe GateHouse would gladly give us raises if that act wouldn’t set a precedent and probably lead to other unions at other properties demanding raises. But that’s not our problem. At the meeting, Reed confirmed that the company still plans another $1 billion in acquisitions in the next year or two. Surely, there is room for raises, I thought.

Once the meeting started, I looked around. There were only 10 people in the room. Except for the three of us, everyone else was a corporate official of some kind except for one or two people representing some investors. I didn’t know who they were, and they didn’t say a word during the meeting. We were the only people there representing some of GateHouse’s thousands of employees.

The entire meeting lasted about a half-hour. Reed gave a synopsis of the company’s performance from the past year, which included emerging from $1 billion in debt through bankruptcy, forming the new company and acquiring two groups of newspapers. Reed is a tall, husky man with short, dark-brown hair who was wearing a gray suit, white shirt and striped tie.

He said 2014 was “a pretty monumental year for our company.” He said financial performance has been “OK.” Print ad revenue continues to “struggle mightily,” he said. Depending on the site, there are year-over-year declines averaging 5 percent to 15 percent each month, he said.

He said the company is trying to be “efficient” and trying to switch its advertising customers to a subscription-based arrangement through services such as Propel. Over 6,000 customers companywide are using Propel, he said. This growing trend, he said, is hoped to “bring stability to our business.”

Overall, he said, “We’ve had a successful year” and we have “grown stockholder value.” He talked about the stock price rising from $12 to $24 per share. “We remain optimistic about the long-term future.”

There was no mention during the meeting of all the layoffs that have occurred at the various newspapers GateHouse acquired over the past year, including the Providence Journal, where a Guild local represents employees in the newsroom and other parts of the building.

Reed said the reason for his optimism is that newspapers are “so important” to our customers and the communities we serve. “We feel like we’re positioned for success. We just have a lot of tough work ahead of us,” he said.
When company officials asked if any stockholders had questions or comments, Shannon Duffy stood up. He said the Guild hopes GateHouse is “wildly successful” and that both the union and the company have a joint interest in the company succeeding.

But he said he wonders, from an investor’s point of view, whether the company is proceeding in investors’ best interests when employees haven’t gotten raises in five, six or seven years, experienced journalists are leaving, and the value of many newspapers in customers’ eyes is declining as a result.

“At some point, we think it’s appropriate to reinvest and reward your employees,” Shannon said.
“We’re not here to throw rocks,” he said, but rewarding employees will help make the company more successful.

Reed thanked Shannon for his remarks. Reed said, “You’re partners of ours. We appreciate your concerns.” Reed said the union and the company “need to put our heads together” to ensure the company’s “long-term viability.”

Buedel asked whether money raised for the company’s planned $1 billion in new acquisitions by the end of 2016 will land the company in the same debt problems it struggled with a few years ago. Reed responded that the debt was raised from “equity shareholders,” so it’s not the same kind of debt that got the company in trouble before.

Reed said GateHouse/New Media can “weather the next recession.”

Shannon passed out a two-page flyer that the Guild is distributing to stockholders outlining the Guild’s concerns. The flyer is available online.

The Guild is rallying public support to our cause at savethesjr.com.

Guild to publisher: We want a fair contract, not crumbs

Here is the United Media Guild’s response to SJ-R Publisher Clarissa Williams’ recent letter to all SJ-R employees in which she complained about the Guild’s ongoing efforts to secure a fair, first contract. The response was written by UMG President Jeff Gordon. Jeff is a sports writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is very familiar with GateHouse. He cares deeply about all of us in the UMG’s Springfield Unit. And I wholeheartedly agree with what he writes in this response. – Dean Olsen, Springfield Unit chairman

State Journal-Register publisher Clarissa Williams expressed puzzlement and concern over the bargaining positions of the United Media Guild and the actions of its members. So we would like to address her concerns, such as they are.

The company has steadfastly refused to offer wage increases, maintaining a pay freeze that has lasted seven years and counting. The Guild was pleased to see the company offer the Employee Bonus Program, since this was the first time GateHouse Media suggested our members could actually share in the financial success of this profitable newspaper.

This is better than the company’s earlier “if you don’t like it, leave” stance in negotiations.

But it remains to be seen if the company will actually pay any bonuses. We have no input on how the bonus program goals are set and no oversight of how the relevant numbers are crunched. It impossible to evaluate whether the plan will ever have real value.

Guild members who survived the various cutbacks under GateHouse have shouldered bigger workloads while losing ground financially to inflation. They deserve raises.

The company wants the Guild to accept many “same as” provisions as other employees at the State Journal-Register. But members voted to unionize because they sought to improve compensation, benefits and working conditions enduring after years of erosion under GateHouse.

A collective bargaining agreement can set standards the company cannot unilaterally lower whenever it wants to funnel more money into the corporate coffers. Merely accepting what the other employees get leaves our members vulnerable to more negative changes.

The company wonders why we want “union shop” language. Because labor law requires unions to represent everybody in the bargaining unit — members and non-members — the Guild believes everybody benefiting from representation should become a member. This is how it works at the Peoria Journal Star, Pekin Daily Times and other newspapers the UMG represents.

Companies like GateHouse promote the “open shop” concept because it weakens employee solidarity and makes it more difficult for unions to protect their members from corporate abuse. The company is not concerned about employee choice, it is concerned about leverage.

Newsroom employees voted to join the Guild. They elected their officers and helped set goals for negotiations. Some day they will vote on whether to approve their first collective bargaining agreement. They are part of a democracy operating for the betterment of all the members.

The Guild’s public campaign explains how our members do their best to produce quality journalism despite how GateHouse has diminished the State Journal-Register through layoffs, outsourcing and an eternal wage freeze that prompts good employees to move on voluntarily. We are asking readers and advertisers to support our efforts to create better working conditions, promote the retention of quality journalists and ensure a better product for many years to come.

At the Art Fair our members had a chance to chat with many Springfield-area residents who were quite familiar with the SJ-R’s decline. Some had quit reading the paper and some had quit advertising. We assured them that Guild members were working collectively to make things better.

The Guild will continue this successful outreach through public appearances, social media, updates on our informational website and other sorts of media campaigns.

(As for the Old Capitol Art Fair, it didn’t appear we were bothering anybody. If fair coordinators were “outraged” as Williams states in her letter to employees, they could have stopped by and expressed concern to Guild members passing out flyers.)

Guild members have worked very hard under increasingly difficult circumstances to keep the State Journal-Register profitable. The SJ-R generates positive cash flow that funds dividends for GateHouse Media’s parent company, New Media Investment Group, and fuels purchases of other newspaper properties.

GateHouse is no longer a bankrupt company buried in insurmountable debt. It is now part of the most dynamic newspaper company operating today, one in the midst of a $1 billion buying spree.

Company executives collect generous salaries and bonuses. They collect stock dividends and benefit from rising stock prices. The money guys behind New Media Investment Group collect massive management fees for orchestrating this transformation. Their rewards will become greater as they build an even bigger empire.

The Guild is simply encouraging the company to invest more in its core product — quality journalism — to ensure that its news-gathering operations remain viable for years to come. We believe excessive cost-cutting undermines the long-term success of the company in key markets like Springfield.

We have taken that message to the top of the company. GateHouse Media chief executive officer Kirk Davis listened to our concerns at the recent New Media Investment Group shareholders meeting in New York City. The Guild appreciated Kirk’s time and courtesy. The same goes for Michael Reed, New Media’s CEO. He has always been willing to meet with the Guild and listen.

But executives at that level pay more attention to bottom line cash flow than our informational flyers or one-on-one conversation. So our campaigns will continue until we get a contract that respects our members’ contributions to this corporate success and creates a more encouraging atmosphere in the newsroom.

UMG files unfair labor charge against State Journal-Register

When our members in The State Journal-Register newsroom joined their public supporters for informational picketing outside of the newspaper building, a member of the GateHouse management team videotaped their protest.

Such surveillance can intimate union members and discourage them from exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. For that reason, such surveillance is prohibited under the act.

So the United Media Guild has filed another unfair labor practice charge against GateHouse Media, this time at the SJ-R. (Earlier we filed two separate charges at the Rockford Register Star after the company clearly violated the National Labor Relations Act. We negotiated a favorable outcome to those charges.)

While this charge is under investigation, we hope GateHouse respects the rights of our members to exercise their rights. We can expect to see more public actions at the SJ-R, given the unreasonable position the company is maintaining at the bargaining table.

UMG files unfair labor charge against State Journal-Register

When our members in the State Journal-Register newsroom joined their public supporters for informational picketing outside of the newspaper building, a member of the GateHouse management team videotaped their protest.

Such surveillance can intimate union members and discourage them from exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. For that reason, such surveillance is prohibited under the act.

So the United Media Guild has filed another unfair labor practice charge against GateHouse Media, this time at the SJ-R. (Earlier we filed two separate charges at the Rockford Register Star after the company clearly violated the National Labor Relations Act. We negotiated a favorable outcome to those charges.)

While this charge is under investigation, we hope GateHouse respects the rights of our members to exercise their rights. We can expect to see more public actions at the SJ-R, given the unreasonable position the company is maintaining at the bargaining table.

Radio ad campaign targeting GateHouse greed set to launch

 On Monday, March 16, our union will launch a radio advertising campaign designed to continue the pressure on GateHouse Media and focus public support by giving listeners a way to send a message to GateHouse corporate officials.

KirkDavis

Kirk Davis, CEO of GateHouse Media

The ads will call on people to go to a special website — savethesjr.com — where they can read about our campaign, sign a petition and send an email to Kirk Davis, chief executive officer of GateHouse Media.

If you haven’t heard, Davis is having a pretty good year. He was recently awarded a $400,000 bonus, on top of a $494,785 salary. His total compensation in 2014 was $914,634. As you may be aware, journalists at The State Journal-Register have gone more than seven years without a pay raise.

We have been bargaining with GateHouse since early 2013 to hammer out a first-ever contract covering reporters, copy editors, photographers and other journalists in the newsroom of the SJ-R. Most sections of our first contract have been tentatively settled, except for the pay and benefits. GateHouse is saying there is no money available for any enhancements at one of the chain’s top-performing newspapers. Meanwhile, the company seems to have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on new acquisitions, including the Providence Journal, Halifax Media Group and Stephens Media.

We will launch the first of two radio ad buys on Monday. Nine 30-second messages will air every day for four weeks on each of three Capitol Radio Group stations: WTAX-AM 1240 (news/talk), WLFZ-FM 101.9 The Wolf (country), and WYMG-FM 100.5 (classic rock). That’s a total of 756 ads.

A second radio ad began Monday, March 30, on WMAY-AM 970.

The ad that began airing on Capitol Radio group can be heard on the Internet at bit.ly/guildradio. Below is the text of the ad:

“A lot has changed at the State Journal Register since GateHouse Media bought the paper in 2007. The printing press was outsourced to Peoria. Page designers, proofreaders, outdoors writer, food editor and other positions all eliminated. The newsroom formed a union to stop the bleeding and save quality journalism in Springfield. Go to Savethesjr.com and tell the out-of-town corporate owners enough is enough. It’s time to reinvest in your workers. That’s savethesjr.com. This message brought to you by the United Media Guild.”

The WMAY ad can be heard by going to bit.ly/GuildWMAY. Both ads ask people to take action by going to savethesjr.com.

Recent weeks have seen demonstrations by workers inside the SJ-R building. You can see photos of this demonstration on our Facebook page. Public support for our cause already has included a march outside the SJ-R building in the fall, a meeting of faith leaders with Publisher Clarissa Williams and her management team, and thousands of cards signed by area residents being mailed to Williams. Even more activities are planned to help convince GateHouse that it’s important to invest in its existing, highly successful products and its hard-working employees.

Please inform everyone you know about this campaign. Encourage them to go to savethesjr.com and take a stand for quality journalism in the capital city of Illinois.

DSCN1933
GuildMarch

Members of the SJ-R Newspaper Guild march in the Springfield Labor Day Parade.

‘Save the SJ-R’ website launched to focus public on GateHouse

Dear Friends, Colleagues and Supporters:
Please spread the word about our new website: savethesjr.com. You can go there and send an email to GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis and sign a petition supporting our cause. Also, follow our contract campaign on Twitter @SaveTheSJR. Please spread this information to everyone you know.