Missoula Indy’s efforts to organize under Lee has support of Montana’s largest labor union

Efforts by staffers at the Missoula Independent to organize under Lee Enterprises gained the support of the state’s largest labor union on Tuesday, with the MEA-MFT saying it is watching the process closely.

But in a letter to advertisers last week, the paper’s general manager, who also oversees the Missoulian, called the organizing effort a “naive and extremely shortsighted” approach, and said it wasn’t in the staff’s – or the weekly newspaper’s – best interest.

Staffers at the Independent filed their petition last week with the National Labor Relations Board and are waiting for a response from Lee Enterprises. The corporation owns five other papers in Montana, including the Missoulian and Billings Gazette.

“We are watching because we believe working people everywhere should have the unfettered right and opportunity to organize into unions and bargain collectively with their employers,” MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said Tuesday. “We urge Lee Enterprises to step back from anti-union interference and let the employees decide entirely for themselves if they want to be (in a) union or not.”

The Indy staff’s effort to organize continues a yearlong saga that began last April when Matt Gibson, then the owner of the Independent, sold the publication to Lee Enterprises.

Gibson, who now serves as the general manager of both the Indy, the Missoulian and the Ravalli Republic, said he made the decision to sell in order to tap into Lee’s technical capabilities amid sweeping changes in advertising and marketing.

While Gibson hasn’t returned calls seeking comment on efforts by his staff to unionize, he sent a letter to advertisers last Thursday to “provide a fuller picture” of the labor movement. While he said he understands the anxieties of the Indy staff, the effort to organize is naive and shortsighted, he said.

“It’s not in the best interest of the staff, the paper, the community, or the owner, Lee Enterprises,” he wrote. “When it’s all said and done, the organizing effort amounts to a dramatic gesture to take some sort of principled stand, but there’s no substance to it.”

Gibson, who owned the Indy for 20 years, said the product remains part of the community, and he stated his commitment to ensure its survival, even as other free weeklies fold.

However, he added, the Indy has been losing money, and it continues to do so under Lee. He said the product has persisted largely due to his own personal commitment to the paper.

“For the last 11 months, Lee Enterprises has carried the weight,” he wrote. “Despite the very real financial issues, Lee’s treatment of the Indy and its staff since acquiring it last April has been generous, patient, and wholly above reproach. The pressures on the business will persist whether the staff unionizes or not.”

The timing of the Indy’s petition to organize comes as the staff prepares to move in with the Missoulian at its office on Higgins Avenue. That, combined with Lee’s pattern of cost-cutting measures, such as staff buy-outs and layoffs, has the Indy employees feeling anxious and underrepresented.

Last week, several Indy staffers said they’re looking to gain a voice in the paper’s future – and that of their jobs – as the Indy and Missoulian merge under the same roof.

“This is something that can help us have a voice in the process, rather than just having things happen to us,” Indy reporter Susan Elizabeth Shepard said. “We’d like to take part in the decisions that affect the paper. As with any changes that happen to the Independent, having some kind of bargaining power gives us, at least, a say.”

In his letter to advertisers, Gibson called that perspective as a misperception.

“The business challenges confronting us are fundamental, and the union cannot solve them,” he said. “Nor will union representatives give staff more influence over the paper’s editorial approach. The direction, tone and quality of a newsroom are the responsibility of the publisher and editor.”

In an email sent Tuesday, the Missoula Independent Union said it was working to stand up for its members. One Indy staffer said Tuesday than an election has been certified and a vote will be held on April 6.

If 51 percent of non-management staff vote yes, then the union will be formed and collective bargaining could begin.

“It didn’t take long for Lee Enterprises to display aggressive opposition to this union drive,” the Missoula Independent Union said. “Over the last week, a variety of pressure tactics have been utilized by upper management to show their displeasure with our desire to have a union. But we’re standing up for ourselves.”