Facing mandatory furloughs and an uncertain future, members of the newsroom at the Billings Gazette on Thursday announced the formation of a union campaign in hopes of gaining a voice in the decisions made by the newspaper’s corporate owner.
The Gazette is Montana’s largest print paper and one of five in the state owned by Lee Enterprises. The company has roughly three weeks to issue a response.
“We’ve been organizing for the past six months, but it’s been years in the making,” said Anna Paige, a Gazette reporter and the communications coordinator for the Montana News Guild. “At this point, we’re waiting for a response (from Lee). We hope they voluntarily recognize the union.”
Of the 21 employees who are eligible at the Billings Gazette, 19 have confirmed their intent to join the guild, according to Paige. Like other newsrooms across the country, including those in Montana, the paper has seen its ranks diminish over the past decade due to layoffs and buyouts.
“We have seen plenty of fellow journalists be let go, laid off and offered buyouts,” said Paige. “Our industry has shrunk by half in the past two decades, which mirrors national trends. We haven’t had cost of living increases across the board in many years and our health insurance costs are incredibly high.”
While forming a guild isn’t a magic bullet, Paige said, it could give the newspaper’s journalist a voice in future decisions regarding furloughs, layoffs and other issues.
“We’d like to be able to bargain and negotiate with the company when mandatory furloughs come into play,” said Paige. “We understand that sacrifices need to be made for the industry to survive, but we don’t have a voice in that conversation and it really did push us toward getting this union announced.”
Lee Enterprises has successfully defeated efforts by newsroom staffers to unionize over the past 10 years. In the past, reporters at the Missoulian considered a similar move but were dissuaded by corporate officials.
More recently, staffers at the former Missoula Independent voted to unionize after Lee Enterprises purchased the weekly paper in 2017. The company closed the paper a year later and locked its employees out of the office without notice.
But the Casper Star Tribune, also owned by Lee, successfully unionized several years ago. Paige said it has served as a model for members of the Montana News Guild at the Billings Gazette.
“They have successful unionized and negotiated with the company for pay raises and concessions during furlough,” said Paige. “They have been a good guide for us and we support our fellow newsrooms in their efforts going forward if this is a path they want to take. Casper was instrumental in supporting us.”
While the company has made deep cuts to its newsrooms, it has handed its top executives sizable salaries and compensation packages. Among them, LEE CEO Kevin Mowbray earned more than $1.8 million in 2019 while the salary for other top executives ranged from $541,000 to $959,000.
Bonuses to the top five Lee executives in 2019 also ranged from $96,000 to $449,000. Those salaries and bonuses have often been a source of contention among the company’s journalists, who have forgone pay raises while watching as coworkers lost their jobs.
“For too long we have seen our corporate out-of-state employer, Lee Enterprises, cut our staff and raise our medical costs while providing few, if any, cost of living increases,” the guild’s organizing committee said in a statement. “We believe that through unionizing, we can create a more stable environment for local news to grow.”