Screenshot: Chicago Tribune Guild

In the latest sign of tension between media executives and rank-and-file journalists in an embattled news industry, staffers at the Chicago Tribune announced on Wednesday that that they are attempting to form a union at one of the most historically conservative papers in America.

The Chicago Tribune Guild’s organizing committee—composed of nearly four dozen staffers including reporters, editors, and columnists—made the effort public in a letter to the newsroom that criticized the newspaper’s owner, tronc, for having “jeopardized our ability to do great work.” The group is seeking representation by the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America.

“Our primary goal in forming a union is to give us, the Tribune’s journalists, a voice in setting the course for the publications we hold dear,” the organizing committee wrote.

It’s an historic shift at the newspaper, which for decades has stood as a bastion of Midwestern conservatism. And it comes as journalists at media outlets around the country, from the mighty Los Angeles Times to the tiny Missoula Independent in Montana, have organized in an effort gain power in an unstable media economy.

In a memo to staff Wednesday obtained by Splinter, Tribune Editor and Publisher Bruce Dold acknowledged the union drive and said “everyone in Chicago Tribune management has the utmost respect for the decisions you make and for your rights on this issue.” Reminding staffers of their recent pay raises, Dold continued:

We are in the midst of a newsroom reorganization that is designed to put us in the best position to fulfill our mission and thrive in an intensely competitive media environment. We are committed to investing in our newsroom. We are committed to serving this community and to remaining the largest and most impactful news organization in the Midwest.

Over the last several weeks we’ve held a number of informal conversations about our mission, our direction, and how we can best grow our readership. We will continue those conversations in the weeks ahead.

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The Tribune Company expanded into a corporate media giant in the 1980s and 1990s, purchasing the Times-Mirror Company—built around the Los Angeles Times—for an astounding $8.3 billion in 2000. The ensuing two decades have seen a whirlwind of reorganizations and cutbacks, a messy bankruptcy after the company temporarily went private, and a name change to tronc.

The diminished corporation is now in the process of completing a $500 million sale of the Times after a contentious union drive there helped expose mismanagement by top executives.

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A union at the Tribune would make for another symbolic shift at a company where top executives continue raking in seven-figure compensation packages while the newspapers they run are forced to cut staff and wait for a savior. Such working conditions—stagnant wages and health benefits among them—ripened the conditions for unionization in Chicago. And they came in addition to prolonged mismanagement by tronc executives and their predecessors that had ushered in strategic inertia at a time of existential financial crisis.

Charles J. Johnson, a Tribune homepage editor and union organizer, told Splinter on Wednesday that watching tronc’s cartoonish pushback to the Times’ unionization effort “certainly poured fuel on the fire.”

“We have been dictated to by a series of owners—tronc being just the most recent and publicly venal—who don’t understand journalism and don’t have our civic mission in mind,” Johnson said. “The newsroom has had to sit and take it without any meaningful way to push back.”

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The proposed bargaining unit consists of about 280 non-management editorial staffers, including those at four Tronc-owned suburban Chicago newspapers, its free commuter daily RedEye, and Hoy, a Spanish-language publication. Johnson added that a “very large percentage of the newsroom” had signed cards in support of the effort, which will ramp up in the coming weeks.

“We believe the union is an investment — in our work, in ourselves, in our readers, in our city and state,” the organizing committee wrote on Wednesday. “For the Chicago Tribune. For Chicago.”


Read the full text of the Chicago Tribune Guild’s letter to the newsroom below:

Dear Colleagues,

In the past few weeks, we’ve talked to most of you about our hopes for the Chicago Tribune and its community publications. Those conversations have convinced us: It’s time to form a union. We’re hoping you’ll join us.

A wide range of the newsroom is represented in this effort. Our organizing committee includes veterans and newcomers, among them many prize-winners, all dedicated to providing our readers with the first-rate coverage of local, state and regional news they expect.

But a series of corporate owners — Tronc being only the most recent — has jeopardized our ability to do great work.

Regular raises, cost-of-living adjustments and job security are non-existent. The cost of our healthcare benefits has significantly increased. Our maternity and paternity policy is inadequate.

Development opportunities — the kind that allow us to achieve professional goals and to enrich our news coverage — are rare. We have lost many talented colleagues to higher-paying jobs that offer better protections and more possibilities for advancement.

And although we live in a racially and ethnically diverse city and state, diversity is not well-reflected in the newsroom. A more diverse staff will help guide coverage that fully reflects the lives of the many types of communities in and around Chicago. We can do better.

Our primary goal in forming a union is to give us, the Tribune’s journalists, a voice in setting the course for the publications we hold dear. This includes the Aurora Beacon-News, Daily Southtown, Naperville Sun, Elgin Courier-News, RedEye and Hoy.

In the coming days, we’ll ask you to join this effort by submitting signature cards signaling your support for representation by the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America. The guild represents thousands of journalists and media workers at respected papers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun and — as of this year — the Los Angeles Times.

This would be the first union for editorial employees in the Tribune’s 170-year history, and we know you may have questions. We did too. Please feel free to approach any of us. We would love to talk to you.

We believe the union is an investment — in our work, in ourselves, in our readers, in our city and state.

For the Chicago Tribune. For Chicago.

Read the full text of Chicago Tribune Editor and Publisher Bruce Dold’s response to staff below:

Colleagues,

I received the letter earlier today expressing the intent of a number of newsroom employees to form a union. Everyone in Chicago Tribune management has the utmost respect for the decisions you make and for your rights on this issue. We believe in transparency, open dialogue and fairness. That’s who we are as journalists and what guides the Tribune.

The letter raises concerns about compensation, the cost of healthcare benefits, development opportunities, staff diversity, job security and other issues. We take all of these to heart.

As you know, we recently notified employees of an increase in compensation. This was guided by an effort to remain competitive in our market, to reward highperforming employees and to promote gender parity and a diverse workforce. We plan to continue those efforts.

We are in the midst of a newsroom reorganization that is designed to put us in the best position to fulfill our mission and thrive in an intensely competitive media environment. We are committed to investing in our newsroom. We are committed to serving this community and to remaining the largest and most impactful news organization in the Midwest.

Over the last several weeks we’ve held a number of informal conversations about our mission, our direction, and how we can best grow our readership. We will continue those conversations in the weeks ahead.

If you have questions, concerns, ideas, please bring them to Chrissy, to Peter, to me, to your direct managers. We’re listening.

My door is open. Please come on in.

Thank you.

Bruce

Update, 11:29 AM: The headline of this post was updated to reflect the fact that Tribune staffers have launched a union drive, not made the final collective decision to unionize.

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Update, 4:26 PM: This post has been update to include written remarks to staff by Chicago Tribune Editor and Publisher Bruce Dold.