How One Journalist Learned About Modern Union-Busting the Hard Way

Sara Steffens, 37, is standing her ground. Once, she was a top reporter covering poverty and social services for the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, California. Today, Steffens labors as a union organizer. But a lasting lesson about unions came as a journalist organizing her co-workers with the Bay Area News Group, a holding of MediaNews Group, Inc.  


The experience transformed Steffens, also a mother of two daughters, June, five months, and Rosie, three and a half years. "I was so surprised at what an organizing campaign actually looked like and how it worked," she said. "I hadn't come from a labor background. In my head it was going to be an intellectual debate between management and workers. I had this idea about what the best arguments would be for and against unions." 

In the months to come, her viewpoint would change along with her working conditions.

Company Resistance to the Union 

During the Guild's drive, MediaNews hired Cruz and Associates, Inc., based in Southern California, Steffens said. The firm's Web site touts its skill in "union avoidance [and] counter union communications strategy"; adding: "For the majority of our clients, the single largest operating expense is labor costs." 

Cruz and Associates declined to comment as to the scope of its work for MediaNews, whose general counsel is Marshall Anstandig. Asked what Cruz and Associates did during the union drive, Anstandig said that was "confidential." 

Less confidential is what happens when workers organize, and why employers resist the efforts with such zeal. Workers can bargain collectively with employers to improve pay, benefits and conditions. "Economic data have long demonstrated a substantial wage premium for unionized workers—on the order of 10 to 20 percent—relative to non-union workers with similar characteristics," according to John Schmitt, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

As a journalist, Steffens organized with the California Media Workers Guild, Local 39521, The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, CLC unit. Her version of that experience is noteworthy. 

"It's so difficult and scary to stand up in your workplace to choose a union when employers have constant access to you and control your livelihood," she said. A union has no such access to or control of employees at work. That power rests with employers.   

According to Steffens, "What the company actually did was to try and scare people in mandatory one-on-one meetings with their direct supervisors and management from voting for the union. Their message was that a pro-union vote might lead to layoffs and be a bad career move. 

"It's not really an open debate between the union and management. The way that our labor law system is set up now almost demands that management respond like that to organizing."   

A Necessity to Organize

According to Steffens, necessity drove her and her co-workers to launch the organizing campaign. "The company merged a bunch of newsrooms and quit recognizing an existing union," she said. "There was a group of us who saw organizing a new union as a way to keep alive the quality of our papers by exercising the strength of numbers." 

Do the math. The number of journalists in the combined newsrooms fell from 300 to 200 during the union drive. This trend reflects the industry's economic instability. It has dual causes. One is a sharp loss of ad revenue to the Internet. That shrinking revenue funds newspapers' operating expenses. The other is a brutal recession. Eight million jobs have been lost, doubling the ranks of the unemployed nationwide since Dec. 2007. These trends are shaking the foundations of mainstream print journalism and journalists.          

Steffens was an organizing co-chair with fellow reporters Karl Fischer, Carl Hall and Michael Manekin during a 6-month campaign leading up to a union vote. This is what workers must do to comply with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. It calls for a secret-election ballot to (not) join a union. As the ballot date grew closer for Steffens and her workmates, they and management tracked the votes closely. Tensions rose. Livelihoods were at-risk. She and her co-workers won the National Labor Relations Board election of June 13, 2008 by a narrow margin. 

The bloom was quickly off that rose, though. A month after winning the vote to unionize, management dropped a figurative bomb in the form of layoffs for Steffens and 28 of her co-workers. "About two-thirds of those laid-off were union supporters," she said. "Conversely, none of the leaders of the in-house anti-union group were laid off." 

Anstandig, who also teaches labor law at Santa Clara University, said there was no "animus to the layoff decision" for Steffens and her co-workers. Rather, the company cutbacks were due to declines in revenue, circulation and "needing to make efforts to cut back on costs," he said.   

Freedom to Choose

According to Steffens, the post-ballot layoff was retaliation for her and co-workers' efforts in the union drive. A remedy exists, she said: passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. The EFCA, which amends the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), requires the necessary votes to pass the Senate and House before President Barack Obama signs it into law (which he promised to do while running for that office with major labor union help). If this comes to pass, workers could have an easier time of joining and remaining in unions. 

The EFCA would level the playing field between management and workers in three ways: It gives employees a choice between a secret ballot and checking a union card, imposes stiff fines for employers who violate employees' right to organize and creates a binding, 120-day timeline for negotiating a crucial first-year contract. For one leading scholar, though, the EFCA is no magic wand. 

Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Her 2009 report, "No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing," shows that the MediaNews campaign that Steffens and her co-workers experienced matches broader trends in the U.S. workplace. American employers more than doubled their use of anti-union tactics against employees attempting to form unions between 1999 and 2003. Want proof? Bronfenbrenner analyzed a random sample of 1,004 NLRB union election campaigns and did in-depth surveys with head union organizers (like Steffens) in 562 of the campaigns (PDF).

Sixty-three percent of employers use mandatory one-on-one, anti-union meetings with employees. Further, 57 percent of employers threatened to close the workplace, while 47 percent of employers issued threats to slash benefits and wages, while 34 percent of employers fired workers during union organizing drives.

For Bronfenbrenner, Steffens' employment experience "shows both the best of EFCA and its limitations." Take the card check option. It offers employees the option to check a card to show their support to unionize versus the NLRB secret-ballot election process. If a majority elects to sign cards, talks between the union and the company begin. That change to card check would help workers by "allowing the union to avoid the worst of the employer opposition," said Bronfenbrenner.  Further, "the stiffer penalties for all employer violations could have a restraining effect on the opposition" to unionizing. 

However, big companies such as MediaNews, which owns daily papers, radio and TV stations across America, have deep pockets. Thus, "the EFCA penalties probably are not large enough to be any disincentive at all and they (companies) may play hard ball through the entire election and first contract campaign taking every penalty they get, still doing the lay off, and forcing an imposed first contract," according to Bronfenbrenner. 

Against this backdrop, Steffens and her fellow laid off journalists have had another reality check. Consider this. Their Guild filed three NLRB unfair labor practice charges at the regional and national levels against MediaNews for the post-election layoffs of July 2008. The Guild lost each time and lost a request for reconsideration, Steffens said. According to her, the NLRB rulings show that, short of written evidence from MediaNews of her and co-workers' layoffs being due to union activity, the Guild has no case.      

The Guild and Labor Law 

Three months after her 2008 layoff, Steffens landed a full-time job as an organizer with the Guild. Now she works to improve the bargaining power of print journalists employed by MediaNews in Northern California. 

About a year after employees voted for a union, they ratified their first Guild contract. "I'm so proud of everybody that's part of that bargaining unit, which covers over a dozen papers in the East Bay Area," Steffens said. The contract established a minimum rate of pay of $39,000 per year for journalists. "That means raises for a number of reporters," she said, adding this is not "a huge salary" for area residents.   

David Bonior is the chairman of American Rights at Work and a former House Democratic Whip. According to him, Steffens is a poster person for Congress passing the EFCA. Since her layoff, she has spoken out publicly for it to become the law. Here's why.   

"When I started losing the NLRB cases, I realized that the system of labor law is broken," Steffens said. "It doesn't work. The law says that you have the right to organize a union and can't be fired for it. The law prohibits employers from threatening or intimidating employees during an organizing campaign. But all of those things are routine. The recourse you have through the NLRB isn't very efficient and it doesn't really work for most people." 

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