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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Utica Observer-Dispatch journalists fight for better labor contract from corporate media giant

The building where the Utica Observer-Dispatch was formerly housed. Though the paper has moved, the building still bears its name. | Photo by Gabriel Bit-Babik, Staff Photographer

UTICA, NY - This Labor Day, the staff union at the local Utica Observer-Dispatch (O-D) is ratioing their employer on Twitter and fighting for a new collective bargaining contract to replace their nearly decade-old contract, which expired in 2017, and does not guarantee annual raises or permit dues to be paid directly from wages, among other provisions that have become standard in union contracts. O-D staff participated in a “lunch out” and launched a petition with colleagues at other local papers across the country on August 11th to protest promised layoffs by their parent company, Gannett. The Utica News Guild (UNG), officially the Newspaper Guild of Utica - Local 129 of NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, is hoping to achieve stronger provisions in this contract including pay minimums with regular raises, increased staffing, and stronger diversity hiring efforts, among other proposals. UNG President and O-D reporter Rose Schneider told Monitor in an interview, “There has to be a way that there's other money there, rather than closing papers that have been around for close to hundreds of years and cutting people's livelihoods.”

Gannett, a national news media company which owns USA Today and over a hundred local papers, sold the O-D after having owned it since 1935 to GateHouse Media in 2007, and then reacquired it in a merger between the two companies in 2019. While at the time GateHouse and now-Gannett CEO Mike Reed told the NY Times that targeting “inefficiencies” would not include laying off newsroom staff, the company just laid off 400 newsroom employees in an August “bloodbath,” including the sole employee at one of the O-D’s sister papers, the Mid-York Weekly. According to a Facebook post by the publication, its final issue will be September 15th, 2022. Mike Jaquays, the reporter who was laid off, told Monitor his severance package was generous and that he parted with Gannett on good terms. O-D executive editor Sheila Rayam left for The Buffalo News in mid-August, and according to Schneider, Gannett has claimed it hopes to fill the position, but that is uncertain.

Guild members across the country say they’re alarmed by how these layoffs have occurred while Reed and other executives have earned millions per year. In 2021, Reed took home $7.74 million and CFO Douglas Horne earned $1.51 million while the median Gannett reporter only made $48,419, according to the Boston Business Journal. Gannett will also be spending as much as $100 million on stock buybacks by the end of the year, according to a February company press release. Reed said the company “significantly improved our capital structure” in 2021 and that the buybacks will help “create long-term value for investors.” Stock performance is tied to Reed’s annual earnings.

Yet, in a series of three company-wide emails from company brass on the morning of August 4th, there was a different tone. First, an email from Horne announced the quarter was “more challenging than originally anticipated for Gannett and many industries.” Then, an email from Reed 45 minutes later read, “The urgent choices we must make in the coming weeks will impact our valued colleagues and require that we prioritize and work together to control the things we can – in preparation for the things we can’t.” Finally, Gannett Media President Maribel Wadsworth broke the news: “in the coming days we will also be making necessary but painful reductions to staffing, eliminating some open positions and roles that will impact valued colleagues.”

“Gannett continues to show that it puts investors and executives before journalists,” said Jon Schleuss, President, NewsGuild-CWA, in a August 11th press release after hundreds of staff from over two dozen Gannett newsrooms across the country coordinated their lunch breaks and attended a Zoom call to discuss next steps in protest of the anticipated layoffs. Schneider told Monitor, “[Gannett] does this while paying millions to union-busting law firms, authorizing a $100 million stock buyback, aggressively paying down its high interest debt, and showering its executives with lavish pay and bonuses. The choices Gannett makes are about priorities. It should begin to prioritize its mission to provide local news and reinvest in the newsrooms accordingly."

Schneider told Monitor of the UNG’s negotiation goals via email, “There are some I'd categorize as standards you'd expect in most union contracts such as dues deduction, successor clauses, and grievance procedures. Others would seek to significantly improve working conditions such as establishing pay minimums with regular increases, increase staffing, provide adequate layers of protection from layoffs and improve diversity in hiring.” They continued, “There are also proposals more specific to our jobs as journalists, such as protections of sources and use of bylines.”

Attorney Steven Moss with Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff LLP, who recently began representing the company in negotiations with the union, told Monitor that the company does not comment publicly on ongoing negotiations. Moss specializes in labor law and has a long track record of representing companies in labor disputes. His page on the Benesch site touts his success in “regularly defend[ing] employers in cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state civil rights agencies all over the country.”

After initially requesting to begin negotiations in August 2021, the UNG decided in November 2021 to delay negotiations so that they could occur concurrent with the rest of the Gannett Regional Union; negotiations began in late January 2022. The GRU is a solidarity effort from guilds representing Gannett-owned newsrooms in the region, including RDC, several papers in New Jersey, three in the Hudson Valley, and the Gannett Atlantic Digital Optimization Team, who work to optimize digital content performance for Gannett papers in NY, NJ, PA, MA and DE. GRU guilds have invited representatives from each of the other publications to their collective bargaining sessions in an effort to ensure papers are treated equally and receive the similar goals in their contracts. To date, Gannett has declined to negotiate with the GRU as one unit. Schneider told Monitor in an email, “most other shops started bargaining in late December but Gannett very characteristically delayed meeting with Rochester and Utica.”

The NY NewsGuild has accused Gannett of acting in bad faith and attempting to quash unionization drives. Separately, UNG Treasurer and O-D reporter Steve Howe told Monitor in an interview that he was disappointed by what he saw as the company’s efforts to prolong negotiations in their own interest, especially from the company’s former legal representation before Moss. “They have certainly recruited a breed of anti-union lawyer that's intended to make this process as slow and as difficult as possible.” He continued, “That's sort of what they're paid to do. So I don't think I'd go as far as saying the company's negotiating in bad faith, but I do think that they're looking out for their own interests and trying to use the position of power that they have to make things more difficult."

Additionally, the UNG has recently sought to consider staff at Mid-York Weekly and the Herkimer Times Telegram in their bargaining unit at O-D. The O-D employs five reporters, one sports reporter, one photographer, and one non-supervisory editor, while HTT has one reporter and one sports reporter. The three publications have shared an office, editor, space in both their print and digital publications, and frequently have staff meetings together. Yet, thus far Gannett has not recognized them as the same staff. Being in the same bargaining unit would extend any contract negotiation benefits to staff at MYW and HTT. Schneider told Monitor that, even though he has been laid off and the paper is being shut down, the UNG would argue that Jaquays’s close working relationship with O-D, having contributed to the O-D regularly, should have offered him union protections as a member of the unit.

O-D staff are working on a contract that began in July 2014 and that expired in 2017. Because neither party had initiated negotiations for a new contract until recently, this one has remained in place; however, parties may dispute that some of the contract still applies. According to the contract, wages shall be paid, “based solely on merit determined through management’s annual review plan” and health insurance shall be through the company’s offerings with amendments “at the company’s discretion.” The annual allotted 5 personal/sick days and vacation days ranging from 10 to 20 based on duration of employment do not accumulate and must be used each year or be forfeited. The contract offers the publisher extreme latitude about when and who to lay off, saying that they may lay people off whenever the “exigencies of business require” it; no specific standard is set for such exigencies. Further, the company shall not be required to lay off in reverse seniority and layoffs are not subject to the contract’s grievance procedures.

The contract explicitly bars strikes while in effect. Schneider told Monitor that while there are certain aspects of the contract considered mandatory subjects of bargaining, the no-strike clause specifies it only applies “during term of agreement.” Because the contract has expired, UNG feels this clause is no longer applicable. While two O-D staff were recently given raises, this was not due to contract negotiations.

Under the current contract’s provisions, one controversy appeared in January 2021 when two supervisory editors, including Michael Kilian, who is the NY State USA Today editor overseeing all Gannett papers in NY, told staff that Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a paid holiday and to take the day off, according to screenshots of internal messages obtained by Monitor. The day after the holiday another editor, who has since left the O-D for the Daily Sentinel (formerly Rome Sentinel), told staff that it was not actually in the contract with O-D, but was in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle contract, also overseen by Kilian, which caused the mistake.

Still, Kilian later emailed staff reiterating the point from the other editor on Microsoft Teams, “Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Guild-represented employees in Utica do not have MLK Day as a holiday because that has not been negotiated. Because we are bound under what the collective bargaining agreement covers, your options are to take a PTO day or to make up the hours this week.”

“I didn’t think we had it off, only took it off because the company assured me it was a holiday!,” said one O-D employee via Microsoft Teams. “You’re asking us to fix someone else’s mistake.”

Kilian warned that a similar situation would arise for Juneteenth, a Gannett holiday that had not been negotiated with O-D. Yet, the company offered Juneteenth for both 2021 and 2022 as a paid holiday as a one-off. Kilian did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Gannett’s leadership has also allowed several positions at O-D to remain vacant, creating a gap in coverage and requiring reporters to take on more beats than before. This means fewer stories are being written, and those that are have been at a tradeoff. Due to these extra pressures, “I'm not going to go to a council meeting and write a story about a council meeting just because the council meeting happened,” said Howe in an interview. He explained that his limited time and resources mean he needs to prioritize the most notable stories.

In a strategic push from Gannett, papers are moving more of their content online and print publication has been deemphasized. Increasingly, as newsrooms have faced resource strains, Gannett-owned publications have cross-published articles. O-D, for example, frequently features stories written by reporters at RDC and vice versa. Howe told Monitor, “That's going to play a negative perception in the community because, let's be honest, when there's stories from Rochester, and stories from Binghamton, and everything else on the front page of the Utica newspaper, people are going to ask why. That’s a question for Gannett, I suppose.”

These gaps in coverage have helped to dethrone the O-D as the paper of record for Utica in just a few short years. Noticing the decrease in reporting capacity at O-D, the Rome Sentinel, a family-owned paper primarily serving Rome, NY, about 20 minutes from Utica, changed its name to the Daily Sentinel in January and hired four former O-D staff. Meanwhile, the O-D announced it would be ending print Saturday publication in favor of digital content, according to reporting from WKTV. Daily Sentinel then opened an additional office in Utica in May. Utica Mayor Robert M. Palmieri and State Senator Joseph A. Griffo attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Separately, Schneider received an offer from a Schenectady paper for a higher salary and brought it to O-D for a match, who gave her a raise nearly as high as the offer.

UNG has appealed to the community for support in its efforts to continue providing comprehensive reporting to Uticans, especially via Twitter. Recently, the Central New York Labor Council called upon community members to support the NewsGuild’s petition. They wrote in a graphic posted on Instagram and included in a monthly newsletter, “This is not just about the reporters in the Observer-Dispatch newsroom. This is about the community our newspaper serves.”

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