Journalists at the Idaho Statesman, a McClatchy-owned newspaper in Boise, voted unanimously to form a union on Wednesday. Those at the Roanoke Times, a Lee Enterprises newspaper in Virginia, voted 47-3 to form a union on Tuesday. And staffers at the Orlando Sentinel, part of the Tribune Publishing property in Orlando, Florida, are awaiting the results of their May 12 election.
But journalists in newsrooms owned by Gannett (GCI), the largest newspaper conglomerate in the United States, cannot host their own elections. Union leaders at the Southwest Florida News Guild, Delaware NewsGuild and Palm Beach News Guild told CNN Business this week they have each requested that Gannett (GCI) agree to voluntary recognition or to allow mail-in ballots, to no avail.
“Gannett’s tactic is delay us, delay us, delay us,” said Naples Daily News staff photographer Alex Driehaus, a member of the Southwest Florida News Guild, which includes staffers from her Florida paper and from The News-Press and Marco Eagle.
Newspapers and digital newsrooms across the country have been unionizing in recent years to increase job protections as management makes drastic cuts to keep up with revenue losses. The coronavirus pandemic has only elevated newsroom concerns for job security.
Typically, union elections are held in person by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that enforces labor laws. But social distancing rules have made in-person elections untenable, so the NLRB has been holding them by mail-in ballots and tallying the votes over video calls.
Gannett management, however, has yet to agree to this process, leaving several organized newsrooms unable to hold a vote. The delay comes as Gannett staffers are under mandated furloughs and as the company continues toc lay off employees.
The Palm Beach News Guild, which includes journalists from the Palm Beach Post and the Palm Beach Daily News, announced their intention to unionize on February 18. But the NLRB canceled the vote a day before the scheduled March 18 election, and later temporarily suspended its operations when the pandemic hit. The NLRB resumed elections on April 6.
“We want to do mail-in, and that’s where Gannett has been dragging its feet. We had this agreement do it in-person, in order to change that it requires their cooperation,” said Palm Beach Post education reporter Andrew Marra. “They just have not been responding.”
On March 26, Gannett attorneys filed motions to oppose mail ballot elections for all three unions. The motion said Gannett “is not taking a definitive and final position with regard to the potential use of a mail ballot in this matter and is willing to follow the guidance of the Board at the appropriate time, but that time is not now.”
Gannett also said in the motion that NLRB’s regional director overseeing the case, “does not have the authority to direct a mail ballot election.”
Maribel Wadsworth, president of USA Today Network and publisher of USA Today, said in a statement to CNN Business, “We have stated repeatedly that we have no objection to a mail-in election during these unprecedented circumstances. We have raised important questions about how the mail-in election would work and are awaiting guidance from the NLRB.”
Since those motions were filed on March 26, even as elections for other media unions have taken place, Gannett has not changed its position. An NLRB spokesperson told CNN Business that Gannett has yet to inform the agency if the company will agree to mail-in ballots.
A Gannett spokesperson suggested in a statement to CNN Business that it is the NLRB that is impeding the process.
“The NLRB suspended all in-person and mail-in ballots because of the pandemic. The Wilmington Regional Director subsequently decided to proceed with an in-person election in mid-June. No date has been set yet,” a Gannett spokesperson said. “The Regional Director covering the Southwest Florida Guild and Palm Beach News Guild recently set telephonic hearings for May 7 and May 6 to determine how to proceed given the circumstances.”
But according to an NLRB order dated April 21, the Delaware NewsGuild, which falls under the purview of the Wilmington regional director, the paper has an in-person election scheduled for June 16.
The News Journal education reporter Natalia Alamdari, a member of the Delaware NewsGuild, told CNN Business that she doubts social distancing guidelines will be relaxed enough to hold an in-person election in June. Alamdari said Gannett should voluntarily recognize the union.
“We will win this election,” Alamdari said. “But why [is Gannett] spending money on lawyers and legal expenses when they could just recognize the guild and move forward?”