As two of the Post-Gazette’s unions decide whether to go on strike, the future of not only the newspaper, but also local news reporting in Pittsburgh, hangs in the balance. Mike Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, talked with me in an exclusive interview about why the Guild’s leadership authorized the strike vote and what a strike would mean for the newspaper and the city.

The guild, which represents newsroom employees, authorized a strike vote and mailed out ballots to its 123 members on Thursday. Fuoco declined to say how long that process will take, but if a majority of members approves the strike, it still must be authorized by the national Newspaper Guild and the president of the Communications Workers of America.

Separately, eight finance employees at the Post-Gazette who belong to the Pittsburgh Typographical Union #7 have already voted unanimously to go on strike, which the CWA must authorize. The newspaper plans to lay off two of their members on Saturday, ignoring seniority rules, union president Don McConnell told me.

The Post-Gazette declared an impasse in negotiations with the unions, and it announced in the newspaper on Thursday that it would implement a new unilateral contract with the Newspaper Guild that includes wage increases of 8 percent over three years, while requiring employees to share in health insurance costs. Management’s proposed contracts do not honor seniority when it comes to laying off employees, the union presidents said.

“After more than three years of bargaining to reach a new contract with the Newspaper Guild, the union representing newsroom employees, the parties have reached an impasse in contract negotiations,” the Post-Gazette said in a statement to me. “As a result, the Post-Gazette has implemented certain portions of its final offer. …

“We value all employees of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and want to ensure the future of a daily newspaper for Pittsburgh and the jobs that come with it. All of us take pride in supporting the people of Pittsburgh with a daily newspaper that serves our readers, advertisers and the business and nonprofit communities with the best team of journalists and staff in the region.”

Excerpts from my conversation with Fuoco follow below.

Q: Do you feel like the newspaper’s management forced the union into this situation?

Mike Fuoco (MF): “Just to clarify, that is not a contract what they have done. They are imposed working conditions. Our first problem with it is their unlawful declaration of an impasse. We were not at an impasse. We were nowhere near an impasse.”

The guild has been negotiating with management on a new contract for more than three years since its contract expired in March 2017, and the union offered its latest counterproposal in March, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a delay, Fuoco said.

Q: Do you think the newspaper is trying to break the union?

MF: “They have moved a millimeter off of their proposal they gave us in 2017. Our feeling is they never wanted to negotiate with us, and that they were just trying to build a case for an impasse and impose work rules. We feel this was their strategy all along. … We think they’re willing to spend money to try to annihilate us. We have to fight back. We’re fighting for the soul of the Post-Gazette; we’re fighting for our jobs and we’re fighting for dignity.”

Q: Are you worried that this could be an existential moment for the guild? The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh was chartered in 1934.

MF: “There are times in your life when you have to stand up against evil, against oppression and against injustice. For the 123 members of the Newspaper Guild, this is our time. As it has been during the three-and-a-half years of terror that they foisted upon us.”

Fuoco cited several high-profile incidents from recent years that garnered national attention. They include when editor Keith Burris wrote the “Reason as Racism” editorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when publisher John Block came into the newsroom on a Saturday night and ranted about the union, when the newspaper refused to let Black reporter Alexis Johnson cover the Black Lives Matter rallies and when the newspaper also blocked other reporters from covering the story when they supported Johnson.

Q: Are you concerned that the Post-Gazette might not survive a strike by guild members? After the city’s most recent newspaper strike, which started in 1992 and lasted less than a year, the PG purchased the Pittsburgh Press from Scripps Howard and then closed the newspaper when the contract negotiations were settled.

MF: “Number one, we haven’t voted to strike yet. We authorized a strike vote. Soon, we will know what our members do. … If we strike, what we want to do is try to bring the PG ownership to its senses. This is a union town. This newspaper has been part of the fabric of Pittsburgh for 234 years. We are loyal, talented, award-winning journalists. We want to work this out. If we strike, we want it to be a shock to the system for them. It will show them we are the heart and soul of the PG, and we want to work this out. Want to get back to the negotiating table.”

The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shootings, and several employees were finalists for a Pulitzer Prize this year.

Q: Does the guild have plans to put out its own newspaper or online publication if it goes on strike?

Fuoco declined to answer.

Q: Do you think the PG could continue to put out a newspaper during a strike, and what would you say about journalists crossing a picket line?

MF: “I know they have said they will try to put out a product. I can’t imagine what that would look like without the talented journalists of the Newspaper Guild. There will be no votes [against a strike], but I anticipate the no votes won’t be crossing the picket line.”

Guild members met by video chat for two-and-a-half hours on Wednesday, with more than 100 members on the call. Fuoco said some members voiced concerns about the possibility of a strike, but they were focused on their personal economic concerns and not whether the guild has valid reasons to go on strike.

Q: Will other unions support the strike?

MF: “I can’t speak for them.”

McConnell said it would make sense for CWA President Chris Shelton to wait and authorize a strike by both the Typographical Union and the Newspaper Guild at the same time, but he does not know what will happen.

The Post-Gazette reported that three other unions already have ratified contracts.

Q: Many people rely on the Post-Gazette for local news. If the guild goes on strike, what would that mean for news in Pittsburgh?

“Nobody wants to go on strike. In some ways, it’s the last best hope we have. This is something that is solely on them, and it’s solely on them to resolve the situation. For three-and-a-half years, we have expressed to them formally, informally, behind the scenes, any way you can possibly imagine, our willingness to work things out. They for whatever reason, and we feel it’s to get rid of the union, have refused to respond in kind. … They’re on the wrong side of history. They need to get on the right side of history. If we vote to go on strike, we see it as a sad necessity.”

The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com