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Unanimous: Billings Gazette newsroom staffers unionize, prepare for negotiations

Despite warnings from executives representing the paper’s parent owner, Lee Enterprises, on the potential shortcomings of a union, the effort received a unanimous vote from all voting members at the Billings Gazette.

Members of the Billings Gazette newsroom received the votes needed this week to formalize their bargaining unit, the Montana News Guild, in a push to defend their jobs against future cuts.

Despite warnings from executives representing the paper’s parent owner, Lee Enterprises, on the potential shortcomings of a union, the effort received a unanimous vote from all voting members.

“It almost felt a little anti-climactic because we felt like we started a union a long time ago,” said Victor Flores, a Gazette sports reporter and member of the organizing committee. “But without yesterday’s vote, we weren’t officially a union. It was gratifying to officially become a union and for it to be unanimous was icing on the cake.”

Ballots were counted on Thursday and all 18 returns were in favor of the union. Two employees didn’t return a ballot in time to be counted and one reporter was hired after the group filed its petition with the National Labor Relations Board through its regional office in Denver.

With the bargaining unit now formalized, Flores said the Montana News Guild will begin writing a contract proposal. It will present that proposal to Lee Enterprises when bargaining begins.

“We don’t have a date yet,” said Flores. “They said they plan to bargain in good faith.”

The Casper Star-Tribune, a fellow Lee paper located in Wyoming, successfully organized several years ago. It took roughly eight months from the time its newsroom voted to unionize to the time it ratified a contract with Lee.

“We hope it doesn’t necessary take that long, but we’re willing to be patient and bargain for what we feel is fair to all our workers,” said Flores. “The next step would be to form a bargaining committee, and all the union members will vote on who they want to be in the bargaining committee.”

The Gazette newsroom organized its union campaign in late May. The following week, Dave McCumber, the regional editor for Lee Enterprises in the Mountain West states, wrote a letter cautioning newsroom staffers against the potential pitfalls of a union.

McCumber said a union can’t defend against the uncertainties that have challenged the newspaper industry for more than a decade.

“The truth is that the Guild cannot produce revenue that will increase job security,” McCumber wrote. “It cannot produce revenue that will increase wages and benefits. It can only ask the company for those things as part of a negotiation.”

The Montana News Guild will become a member of the Denver News Guild, which represents The Denver Post and the Pueblo Chieftan, along with the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and the Casper Star-Tribune.

The Denver guild also represents the Omaha World-Herald and five non-journalism labor unions in Colorado. Denver News Guild representative Tony Mulligan said negotiations could begin within a month.

Flores said it’s not yet known what the Montana News Guild will be seeking in negotiations, though it will likely hinge on job security, salaries and healthcare benefits. While members of the guild have said unionizing isn’t a magic bullet, it could give staffers a voice in future decisions regarding furloughs, layoffs and other issues.

“We’re still ironing out the proposed contract,” Flores said. “We have a draft contract set up with some of the main things other papers have asked for.”

Lee Enterprises has successfully defeated efforts to unionize by other Montana newsrooms. In the past, reporters at the Missoulian considered a similar move but were dissuaded by corporate officials.

Staffers at the former Missoula Independent also attempted to unionize after Lee Enterprises purchased the weekly paper in 2017. Lee shuttered the paper a year later and locked its employees out of the office without notice. But it did give Indy owner Matt Gibson a job as general manager at the Missoulian. Gibson now heads the Montana Newspaper Association.

While Lee has made deep cuts to its newsrooms, reducing them to roughly half their former size, 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. Meanwhile, the company’s stock on Thursday, July 2, closed at just .98 cents. In the early 2000s it was valued at more than $40.

“It feels good to have this nailed down,” said Gazette public safety reporter Phoebe Tollefson. “Now we’ll get to work on getting a contract proposal the group is happy with, and go from there.”

Gazette President Dave Worstell told guild members Lee plans to negotiate in good faith.

“We certainly plan on following the law and bargaining in good faith with the union’s representatives in order to reach a contract that is fair and equitable to all parties,” he was quoted in the Gazette. “I’m confident that this decision will not slow down our entire organization’s commitment to producing the quality journalism and content that the readers of The Billings Gazette know and expect.”