Wednesday, April 8, 2009

CWA's Media Unions Look To The Future In Baltimore Meeting

The Guild Reporter

Samuel Johnson’s presence pervaded the Baltimore Hilton ballroom in early January, his most quoted aphorism (“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”) channeled by one speaker after another.

“It typically takes a crisis to get us focused, and God knows we’re having a crisis,” acknowledged Bill Boarman, president of CWA’s printing sector, formerly the International Typographers Union.

“We face another trying year ahead,” NABET vice president Jim Joyce added, enumerating a litany of destabilizing trends in the broadcast industry, from increased use of day labor to consolidation of job duties and increased employee turnover to shrinking audiences.

As for the Newspaper Guild, said Guild President Bernie Lunzer, “we’re sort of back where we started,” when rising joblessness and abusive work conditions prompted Heywood Broun
Sara Steffensto call for creation of a newsman’s union.

Yet as just that recitation suggests, the Guild is changing—as is CWA. It took more than a decade after the Guild affiliated with CWA for members of its three media sectors simply to meet in one room. Yet out of that same meeting came widespread agreement that the staffs of the three unions should work more closely together and that the three unions should pool their resources and efforts to create joint organizing and education campaigns.

The occasion was a three-day mid-January conference in Baltimore, titled “Future of the Media Industry,” that explored the ongoing implosion of newspapers and broadcast media, projected trend lines and brainstormed appropriate responses and survival strategies. More than 120 members of the three sectors attended, bringing their disparate experiences to bear on issues of bargaining, organizing, training and alternative ownership models.

Much of the conceptual framework was provided by Chris Benner, of the University of California at Davis, whose presentation dodged issues of power and conflict but nonetheless sketched out a model of the “Next Generation Guild” that goes beyond a simple employer-employee dynamic. Among the elements he introduced: associate memberships for former employees, freelancers and “future employees,” such as bloggers and interns; community stakeholders, both to defend journalistic values and as partial owners; and a more nuanced, collaborative relationship between managers and employees that promotes training and innovation.

The scope of the challenge was laid out by Ken Doctor, a former Knight Ridder executive and currently respected industry blogger, who presented 10 “truths” and one “lie” about the emerging media landscape.

Among the truths:

• Recession speeds decline.

• All media are blurring into one.

• The “digital dozen” (including only two U.S. newspaper companies, New York Times and News Corp., as well as the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse) will dominate.

• News readership is constant, it’s just moved.

• Advertisers are finding better choices.

• The journalist’s role is changing to that of community organizer.

• Stand-alone public newspaper companies are obsolete.

The lie? That all the news media have to do is “hold on.”

Conference attendees applaud a presentation of alternative ownership modelsSupplementing the list of speakers, who included Bob Kuttner of American Prospect magazine and Larry Cohen, president of CWA , were several panels bringing a grassroots perspective to the discussion.

Shannon Duffy, administrative officer for the St. Louis Guild, quoted Bob Dylan—“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying”—in his opening remarks on a panel about the importance of organizing, noting that repeated rounds of layoffs and buy-outs make a significant dent in local revenues that has only one remedy.

“The option of not organizing is terrible,” he said, before describing his local’s success in organizing the Pekin Daily Times—and its defeat at the Bloomington Pantagraph, where “we went down in flames.”

But even defeats can create teachable moments, Duffy added, explaining that the local is making a video of the Pantagraph campaign for posting on the internet to promote the Employee Free Choice Act. Management hired Michael Zinser to counter the organizing drive, and Zinser “did all the textbook things”: captive meetings, weekly letters home to all employees, videos about “union pushers”—all followed by suspensions and firings of the union’s most visible supporters.

Sara Steffens, a well-regarded reporter at the Contra Costa Times who got laid-off the day after a successful organizing drive at her paper was certified by the National Labor Relations Board, explained that a major part of the union’s appeal was its emphasis on journalistic quality—something journalists throughout the country feel is under attack. People want to be part of something positive, Steffens explained, and they want to feel that an organization to which they belong reflects their aspirations. “Your union is going to be what you want it to be,” she emphasized to co-workers when management spread scare stories about union thugs.

In keeping with that sentiment, conference participants were not allowed simply to sit back and listen—four breakout sessions over the three days solicited their insights and thoughts on a variety of matters, resulting in recommendations such as a request that the Guild recruit Spanish-speaking organizers.

Ironically—for a gathering of communicators—one of the most trenchant comments to emerge was an observation that Guild members don’t communicate enough. “I don’t see that we have our story,” groused Arnold Amber, president of CWA-Canadian, expressing a need for someone to articulate “how we’re going to get from here to there.”

A hint of what that roadmap may look like came toward the end, as the final breakout sessions produced nearly 30 possible recommendations. Each conference participant was then given just three votes to allocate among the possibilities—and, perhaps surprisingly, two emerged with nearly twice as much support as the second tier choices: to establish a tri-sector council for organizing, and to tap CWA organizing funds to create a media sector organizing institute, an organizing website and a public outreach and marketing plan.

Other strong vote-getters included:

• Establish union jurisdiction over new media and technologies.

• Create a tri-sector task force to identify and provide for common training needs.

• Design training for union activists that would encompass collaborative bargaining, communication and building solidarity.

• Establish alternative ownership committees in at least 10 locals among the three sectors.

The Guild Reporter

For more information visit:
GR EXTRA! on line
GR Current issue
GR en Español
GR Archives

The Newspaper Guild
Communications Workersof America
501 3rd. Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001-2797

No comments: