2,000 New Members Barred from Voting in NewsGuild Election

NewsGuild President Bernie Luzner is facing allegations that he broke federal law in attempt so steal the NewsGuild union election (Facebook).

Over the next two months, balloting will be underway for the election of the president of the over 2,000 member NewsGuild union.

The election pits veteran incumbent 61-year-old Bernie Lunzer, who has faced criticism for being too top-down and not having worked in a newsroom since 1989, against 31-year-old LA Times reporter Jon Schleuss, who helped lead a historic union drive that propelled the Guild into a series of half-dozen victories at Tronc-owned newspapers in the last year.

Schleuss says he was inspired to run in order to make the union more transparent and democratic.

“Less than two months ago I found out that our union was having elections to determine the next four years of leadership. I was shocked to learn no one was planning to challenge the incumbent, who has been in office for more than 10 years,” tweeted Schleuss on Tuesday. “That’s 10 years of membership declines and concessions. Between 2008 and 2018 the Guild’s membership dropped by 27%. But last year we saw immense growth, propelled by the campaign I helped start @latguild”.

The election is the first election for President of the NewsGuild since a massive digital media organizing wave that saw an infusion of youth energy leading to successful union drives at the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Buzzfeed, and over a dozen other digital media outlets.

Unlike some unions, where only elected delegates are allowed to vote for the union’s leadership, all dues-paying members of the NewsGuild are eligible to vote in the upcoming election.

However, the vast majority of newly organized digital media workers won’t be allowed to vote in the upcoming election for NewsGuild President. As a result of an arcane set of rules, close to 2,000 union members in new bargaining units that have not ratified first contracts, a process that can take several years, won’t be allowed to vote in this spring’s NewsGuild elections.

The rule would effectively disenfranchise approximately 2,000 reporters, nearly 10% of the NewsGuild members in what is expected to be the most closely contested NewsGuild election in a decade.

Outlets were reporters would be disenfranchised from voting include the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, Buzzfeed, the New Yorker, the Capital Gazette, the Virginian-Pilot, the Hartford Courant, the Omaha World-Herald, the Jacksonville Times-Union, the Morning Call, the Casper Star Tribune, New York Magazine, The New Republic, The Newport News -based Daily Press, Rockford Register-Star, the State Journal-Sentinel, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Ledger, and Law360.

Under election rules passed by the NewsGuild, publications needed to have a first contract ratified by December 15th in order to be eligible. Since December 15th, reporters at Law360 and the Casper Star-Tribune have both ratified first contracts, but are still ineligible to vote in this spring’s election for NewsGuild President.

The Rockford Register-Star, the State Journal-Sentinel, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Ledger all ratified their first contracts before the December 15th deadline. However, their members did not have sufficient months of dues-paying in order to qualify for voting rights.

Freelancers employed at publications represented by the NewsGuild are not eligible to vote at all. (The union has long faced criticism from myself and others that it has not done enough to represent the freelance reporters employed in its bargaining units)

The inaction by the Sector Conference to not allow new members to vote in recently organized shops could benefit Luzner, who is more well-known in legacy NewsGuild shops; whereas Schleuss, one of the leaders of the LA Time union drive, has deeper relationships with the new members in the primarily Tronc-owned outlets that organized in the wake of the momentum created by the LA Times victory.

While supporters of Lunzer’s claim that they had no advance warning of the objections of new members that they wouldn’t be allowed to vote, a letter obtained by Payday Report shows that they did. 

The chairs of The Times-Union Guild,  The Los Angeles Times Guild, The New Yorker Union, The Law360 Union, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune NewsGuild, The Casper NewsGuild, and The Chesapeake NewsGuild wrote a letter to those attending the sector conference in late January, asking that the conference approve changes to the constitution giving the right to vote.

“The details of this conference have been hard to come by. A website posting went up only 23 days ago and mentions nominations seven paragraphs down like a footnote. Electing our leadership should be a priority, organized months in advance with a direct, clear call for nominations” wrote the 7 new local union chairs in an open letter that was distributed widely to conference attendees and published online.

“The window of time when journalists and media workers are eager to organize will not last forever,” wrote the 7 local union chairs. “Our best chance to preserve journalism for our communities is representation by a union willing to listen to its members’ needs”.

With a President’s term lasting 4 years, many newly organized members will have very little say in the leadership of the union as the digital media unionization continues to gain steam.

Under the constitution of the NewsGuild, the Sector Conference of the union has the power to waive the rules and allow the newly organized members to vote in the NewsGuild. However, the NewsGuild did not take such action at its Sector Conference in January.

The lack of voting rights has frustrated many newly organized members.

“Good governance isn’t something that’s easy to get people excited about. But there’s a lot of room for improvement and it starts with making it easier for more people to participate,” said Virginian-Pilot military reporter Brock Vergakis. “Even finding the guild constitution online is difficult. I searched this weekend and couldn’t find it on the guild website”.

“The President of the NewsGuild cannot, and should not, arbitrarily waive Sector Conference rules or alter the Guild’s Constitution. Those changes are made by the delegates at the Sector Conference” wrote Lunzer’s spokesperson Nolan Rosenkras, President of the NewsGuild in a twitter direct message to Payday Report.  “These rules and the Constitution have been adopted to be uniform and fair, and the matter has not been raised as an issue until now. Demanding that the elected body simply waive the rules in the midst of a conference is undemocratic and could place the Guild at legal risk”.

31-year-old reformer Jon Schleuss says he intends to make union democracy a central issue in his campaign.

“We need more democracy in our union: that starts with better communication to our members. Many members didn’t know about the recent nominating conference. And the International published only a few scant details online just a handful of days before the event,” tweeted Schleuss on Tuesday.

Update: Our initial story omitted that The Rockford Register-Star, the State Journal-Sentinel, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Ledger would not be eligible to vote in the upcoming election. The piece has also been updated to reflect the views of the campaign of Bernie Lunzer, which did not contact us till after publication.

(Full Disclosure: I was fired as POLITICO’s senior labor reporter for expressing support for unionization in 2015 and the NewsGuild helped me to secure a $70,000 NLRB settlement, which I used as seed money to start Payday Report. As a freelancer, I have been critical of the failure under the Lunzer Administration to represent freelancers employed in existing Guild bargaining units.)

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing over 1,800 stories from 46 states, Elk was the only American reporter in the room with Lula on the morning of the election & traveled with him to the Oval Office. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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