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How the Union Can Help Save the Dallas Morning News

This week, management declined to recognize the union voluntarily. But it's really the least of the organization's problems.

As Jim told you recently, the Dallas Morning News and Al Dia newsrooms are unionizing. As a procedural step, the Dallas News Guild asked the papers’ parent company, A.H. Belo Corp., to voluntarily recognize the union. This would have allowed the Guild to bargain with management over terms and conditions of employment. To the newsrooms, this is a necessary step given the instability of the news industry both pre-COVID-19 and now during the pandemic.

Management, as it often does, thinks otherwise. This week, Belo declined to recognize the union. According to the paper:

Publisher Grant Moise told the Dallas News Guild on Tuesday that it was in “everyone’s best interest” for all newsroom employees to have an opportunity to vote on whether to unionize. But he asked organizers to delay seeking an election for a year to give the company time to recover from the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on its finances.

The union quickly announced this action left it no choice but to move forward with formal elections, as this certification also allows unions to negotiate with management. I’m told the Guild will most likely begin that process next week. The News brass can still choose to voluntarily recognize the union at any time.

As a longtime manager in and out of newsrooms, I’m sympathetic to management’s concerns. Times are tough, and unions drive up pay.

I’m also extremely sympathetic toward unions. Both my grandfathers were union leaders, as was my longtime father-in-law. I think the Dallas News Guild’s desired outcomes—sustainable jobs, equality in the workplace, dignified working conditions, and the defense of ethical practices—are all worthwhile, even crucial.

That said, I’d like to give one bit of advice to management, and one to the union. I think both actions need to be taken if the paper is to become stronger from this unionizing effort.

  1. Belo/DMN management: Don’t worry about how much a union effort is going to cost in pay and benefits, because that is the least of your problems.

This one is simple. No one wants to bankrupt the paper. Journalists will sacrifice to keep the bottom line healthy. It’s just that no one believes that you’re making sound financial decisions across the company, and for the past several years that incompetence has resulted in hits to staff, salaries, or benefits. That’s why they want to be involved in pay/benefit/work environment decisions, because it’s been shown in other newsrooms that the unions often come up with ways to achieve cost balance and still avoid layoffs or morale-crushing outsourcing.

For more on this, the Texas Observer today published a well-reported piece about the decisions that brought this movement on. It suggests the trigger for the unionizing effort was the last set of layoffs, when veteran reporters were let go with 15 minutes’ notice and severance was capped at 10 weeks.

I don’t mean it’s just union members who think management is off base. I suggest investors do as well. As one said to me a few weeks ago, of course a union takes away a cost-saving tool in management’s toolbox—but that’s so far down this investor’s list of concerns in the DMN’s case as to be almost nonexistent. It would be like saying you’re removing a set of pliers from the toolbox you’re taking to repair a gaping torpedo hole in the ship’s hull. So freaking what? To fall on that sword will just further harm your relationship with staff moving forward.

  1. Union organizers/members: Think bigger.

As I said, a union has proven in other media companies to be an effective defensive tool against capricious management decisions. It has given a greater sense of stability to staff, which is important.

It’s also not enough. Stabilizing a declining asset makes everyone feel better, but it’s still a declining asset. The DMN is a public enterprise. Breaking even is not an option. As another DMN executive put it to me years ago, “Every day this paper doesn’t sell, it’s worth less than the day before.”

The union must construct a vehicle to give it agency in strategy decisions that will reverse the paper’s fortunes. It must help reimagine the paper in dramatic fashion—something that management, for all the intentions and rare successes of well-meaning individuals, has proven structurally unable to do.

How to do that? It must negotiate union-led and union-exclusive tools that have access to the paper’s financial information and strategy, and it must have agency to offer better ideas that will save or generate revenue.

My thinking is informed by an an old Labor Research Review article that makes explicit why this approach—an adversarial strategy-generating structure between labor and management, yet both working toward the same goal—works. It’s because management by its very inclusion in staff-generated strategy vehicles dilutes and even destroys the value workers bring to the table: staff’s unique understanding of what happens on the ground level. As the article notes:

Cooperation between labor and management can take many different forms, most of which have little or no effect on improving production. Where production is improved it is because workers are providing knowledge and insight that is otherwise not available to management, and which in most workplaces is still contemptuously ignored.

This is about participation in decision-making that affects the paper’s direction both day-to-day and long-term. The vehicle by which the union can do so is malleable. This article suggests using a “special task force.” It sounds groan-inducing, but again the idea is not to have a task force that produces milquetoast ideas representative of all management levels. It’s to be a union-only vehicle to counteract bad management ideas and offer better solutions.

How does this work in practice? One obvious example would be what happened a few years ago when management decided to outsource its design functions and much of its copy desk work. The copy desk was decimated in layoffs. The on-paper cost-saving solution was a disaster. Headlines written by outsiders with no feel for the paper’s style and no understanding of the city were constantly rewritten by the remaining staffers. Mistakes were aplenty. Now, the paper is trying to undo that damage with an already overburdened copy desk, and with a pay structure that no longer allows to staff the desk properly.

Bargaining for pay and benefits in the wake of such obviously self-harming decisions doesn’t do the union much good. They need to have a model by which they can head off such hugely wrongheaded, demoralizing ideas before they firm up in the minds of management. They must be able to offer better solutions based on their knowledge of what the hell actually happens on the newsroom floor. And they must share in the pain or rewards of responsibility moving forward.

If management can give up its desire for ultimate strategy control—hard to do in any corporate environment, much less a newsroom—a union can have a radically energizing effect on a business that offsets its short-term payroll hit. As well, union members would quickly see how much easier it is to blame others until the responsibility to build the airplane as it’s going down the runway is at least partially theirs.

The eventual alternative is a weak form of “cooperation” between management and the newsroom that does nothing to alter the paper’s decline. Here’s hoping that’s not the case.

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