Newspaper union battles tronc's L.A. Times

Bitter labor skirmish could have unpredictable impact on U-T

Union chief Cesar Chavez and TV star Ed Asner marched on the newspaper's Mission Valley headquarters in February 1990.
  • Union chief Cesar Chavez and TV star Ed Asner marched on the newspaper's Mission Valley headquarters in February 1990.

The last time the Newspaper Guild was heard from in San Diego, the once-mighty union was quietly leaving town, evicted by a narrow vote of Union-Tribune employees after a rough-and-tumble decertification campaign waged by the paper's then-owner Helen Copley and her loyal editor Karin Winner.

Helen Copley

Helen Copley

As reported here in June 1998, "Wavering union supporters are said to have been invited to everything from intimate coffee klatches with U-T chieftain Gene Bell to gratis Padres games, complete with a corporate box and plenty of free booze."

In the end, guild members, who included advertising as well as news staffers, voted 406 to 378 to shuck off the union.

The guild had already lost much of its traction with its then–800 U-T membership a decade before after national leaders masterminded a high-profile campaign promising a new contract or tough labor action, neither of which came off, leaving workers to mull the inefficacy of their representation.

Karin Winner

Karin Winner

Heroes of the left, including farm workers' union chief Cesar Chavez and TV star Ed Asner, marched on the newspaper's Mission Valley headquarters in February 1990, calling for subscribers to boycott the paper.

"She reflects the worst in our society, the greed that is found in corporate America. She personifies it very strongly," Pete Chacon, then a Democratic assemblyman, told a raucous rally.

Copley dispatched her newspaper chain's editor-in-chief, ex–San Diego Union editor, and former Nixon administration communications director Herb Klein, for a counterattack.

Herb Klein

Herb Klein

"Outside, professional agitators may create media excitement, but their political barbs are not relevant to serious labor negotiations. I do not believe San Diegans feel they require advice from labor politicians as to what they should read or how they should react to these complex negotiations."

These days, with the print business a mere shadow of itself, the very notion of a newspaper union may seem quaint to some, but tumult at the Los Angeles Times under its Chicago-based parent tronc has triggered a reporters' rebellion, with unknown consequences for the dwindling workforce at the Union-Tribune, another tronc property.

"Our mission is to safeguard the future of the Los Angeles Times and its journalists," says the website of the newly minted Los Angeles Times Guild.

"That’s why we are forming a union with the News Guild, the organization that represents our peers at The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and many others."

Michael Ferro

Michael Ferro

Backers of tronc, led by Chicago wheeler-dealer Michael Ferro, were quick to slam back with a flier of questions for reporters similar to those raised by Copley during the heyday of the U-T decertification fight.

"If I am receiving nothing from the Guild during a strike, who will provide grocery money for me and my family? How will I make house and car payments?" asks the piece.

"What if I do not want to go out on strike, but some of the other employees do? Will I have to strike with them?"

L.A.'s new labor war is unlikely to spread south to San Diego, where attrition fears raised by tronc have been compounded by rounds of previous layoffs and newspage reductions, say those close to the situation.

Screen grab from tronc flier

Screen grab from tronc flier

But San Diego writers, whose work is already found in the Times, could ultimately be pressed into service as strikebreakers. Some fear that the other extreme, in which Times reporters are granted more pay and benefits, might result in further San Diego layoffs and relocation of editorial work to Los Angeles.

In either case, fear will likely be a key driver in both newsrooms.

"Tronc has no argument for why Los Angeles Times journalists should not enjoy the same guild representation — the same voice in our futures — as our peers at other major news organizations," says the new union's website.

"So Tronc is instructing newsroom managers to tell us scary stories about pay cuts, layoffs, strikes, dues and that old standby, that the union is an outsider."

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San Diego has always been a non-union or even anti-union town. Decertifying the union did nothing for the union members except that they lost what little voice they had. No one benefited from the decertification of the union except for the owners.

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