Update with corrections: With the exception of one month when I was promoted to the editorial board in 1999, I was a union member my entire 34 years at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Unions aren’t perfect. They are often beset by the same broken politics and short-term thinking that shadow every workplace simply because they are run by broken people doing their best to represent the interests of the rank and file.
In my case, membership in the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh made the difference between a solidly middle-class life and mere subsistence living. Paying union dues in exchange for maintaining a living wage, healthcare access, advocacy during conflicts with management and a sense of economic security was a no-brainer.
That’s why the recent wave of unionizing is so encouraging, especially in local media that has seen the bad faith of the PG’s parent company Block Communications, Inc. (BCI) up close.
Public radio stations WESA and WYEP recently voted 26-1 to form a bargaining unit under SAG-AFTRA. The management of Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corporation (PCBC) says it is looking forward to negotiating “in good faith to reach a mutually acceptable agreement with SAG-AFTRA and their members.”
Meanwhile, workers at six local Starbucks have voted to strike after unionizing recently. The movement among service workers in the worldwide coffee chain is lead primarily by young people who see the value of collective bargaining for a future with dignity and economic security.
I left the PG in August grateful for what the Guild has done for me over three decades. Since then, I have cheered my former colleagues from the sidelines as they mount an unfair labor practices strike against a company that hasn’t given across-the-board pay raises in 16 years. In October, BCI cut off health insurance for many employees that could’ve been maintained for as little as an additional $20 a week. The company wanted to force employees into a plan with a higher deductible.
Whether respecting the picket lines or not, all PG journalists are expected to operate under draconian rules imposed by a company that isn’t embarrassed by the lack of progress that has left its employees without a contract since 2017.
Meanwhile, BCI has spent millions on a union-busting firm that has earned it nothing but the contempt of huge swaths of the city’s civilian and business communities.
The PG’s recent call for federal mediation hasn’t resulted in any discernible progress so far. The negotiations are one-sided with the PG repackaging previous offers warmed-over.
Any day now, the National Labor Relations Board is expected to hand down a ruling regarding the Newspaper Guild’s complaint about bad faith bargaining on the part of BCI and its representatives. The company is widely expected to be rebuked, but if they’ve proven anything in recent years, it’s that the members of the Block family currently running the Toledo-based media empire are perfectly capable of operating without a scintilla of shame or embarrassment.
The recent video of BCI chairman Allan Block’s encounter with a Guild organizer at an Ohio Turnpike rest stop gives everyone who might’ve harbored doubts a taste of what those in the unions representing workers at the PG and the Toledo Blade have had to deal with for nearly two decades. The spirit of acrimony and “let ‘em eat laissez-faire cake” hangs over each negotiating session.
In recent years, many of the PG’s best journalists have migrated to other papers both local and national. The quality of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is about to jump exponentially because of the recent hires of several award-winning PG expats. In what universe does it make sense to drive off the best talent to the competition?
As PCBC prepares to negotiate with SAG-AFTRA over work conditions for the content creators at WESA/WYEP, they should also keep the negative example of BCI’s treatment of the Newspaper Guild in mind. There’s no ethical reason to treat media professionals like peasants. Don’t be evil. Such a status quo is morally and financially unsustainable.
Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also working on a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In Other News will launch in early 2023. Stay tuned!
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.