By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
In the runup to the Oct. 30 secret election to form a newsroom union, Miami Herald executives and their parent company overseers have engaged in fear tactics to intimidate employees from voting yes, according to online and social media postings by pro-union staffers.
Earlier in the month, a group of Miami Herald reporters announced the formation of One Herald Guild, a nod to the address of the daily’s former home on Biscayne Bay. But publisher and executive editor Aminda “Mindy” Marqués González said newspaper owner Sacramento-based McClatchy Company would not voluntarily recognize the union, forcing a vote per National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules.
Since then, managers held several mandatory meetings in which they have made misleading statements about forming a union, suggested employees refrain from wearing pro-union clothing in the workplace and have warned staff that raises will be withheld during contract negotiations if the union is formed, newsroom staffers claim. Even star reporters are not immune to the alleged intimidation.
On Monday, Julie K. Brown, who earlier this year won her second Polk Award for her investigative series about sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein, tweeted that she and videographer Emily Michot wouldn’t be allowed to cast absentee ballots because they chose to set up an out-of-town assignment on the same day. Newsroom employees stationed in Tallahassee and Puerto Rico are being allowed to mail in their votes.
Within hours of Brown posting her claims, Marqués tweeted that the guild and management had previously agreed on who could vote. She added management did not object to Brown and Michot, as well a third unnamed out-of-town employee, casting absentee ballots.
In an email response to Florida Bulldog, Marqués denied wrongdoing and accused guild organizers of sharing information that “appears to be inaccurate and incomplete.”
“We respect the rights of our employees to organize if they wish, to express their views on unionization, and to vote on this important issue,” she said. “We have also expressed our opinions on the union, bargaining and other issues – which we are legally entitled to do.”
Miami Herald ‘missed opportunity’?
Joey Flechas, a reporter covering Miami city government, told Florida Bulldog that management missed an opportunity to avoid creating tension in the newsroom during the union drive. “While our management has not engaged in the type of offensive tactics seen in other places, it has been made clear that the flagship company doesn’t want us to unionize,” Flechas said. “This is about creating a professional, good faith relationship with the workers who put this together every day. Management doesn’t need to be acrimonious or inject fear.”
Marqués said organizers are mischaracterizing management’s statements about unions being a bad idea. “We have built a culture of support, collaboration and teamwork,” she said. “And we believe that would be compromised in a union environment that so often thrives on conflict, confrontation and misinformation.”
The union would represent close to 100 employees working for The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and Miami.com and that the effort has more than 70 percent support, according to One Herald Guild. A simple majority is needed for the union to be approved, according to NLRB rules.
The union drive comes at a time of major upheaval in the print news business that has seen major dailies and media companies downsizing and firing scores of journalists, prompting newsrooms across the country to form collective bargaining units. In February, roughly 225 McClatchy employees accepted buyouts in a downsizing move that included 10 Miami Herald journalists.
According to U.S. Postal Service data, The Miami Herald’s seven-day average circulation in 2019 as of Sept. 1 was 41,095, a 22.7 percent drop from the previous year. In 2007, the newspaper reported an average paid distribution of 249,024 for its Sunday edition and 163,710 Monday through Saturday. Paid electronic circulation, however, jumped to 16,112 from 10,679 in 2018.
With so much uncertainty in the industry, One Herald Guild proponents claim a union will ensure rank-and-file employees get a seat at the table the next time McClatchy — which is trading just under $3 on the New York Stock Exchange — plans more layoffs and buyouts, Flechas said. “The guild cannot prevent layoffs,” he said. “But we can negotiate over the terms under which those layoffs and other cuts occur.”
Seeking workplace improvements
In addition, the union would seek other workplace improvements such as instituting paternal leave similar to policies enacted by The New York Times and The Washington Post, which allow new parents 10 weeks and 20 weeks, respectively, of paid time off.
“There has been a pattern over the last several years of reducing our newsroom staff, changing employees’ responsibilities, and in some cases, reducing salaries that we feel should have merited more of a conversation,” Flechas said. “We just want a meaningful role in that conversation.”
Flechas’ statements are backed by dozens of former and current staffers who have provided their own pro-union accounts. In a testimonial posted on One Herald Guild’s website, 36-year-newsroom veteran Linda Robertson said she and colleagues with similar tenure have experienced “painful 33 percent salary reductions” while watching Miami’s oldest daily newspaper lose three-quarters of its staff and 90 percent of its circulation.
“McClatchy … addressed shrinking budget goals on the backs of the newsroom staff, arbitrary math and round after round of layoffs,” Robertson wrote. “They’ve tried redesign, reorganization and reinvention instead of investing in staff and resources, and in the process have alienated their employees and forsaken their audience.”
Another employee testimonial by El Nuevo Herald page designer Roberto Laurencio described how he was promised full-time status after completing his first month on the job in 2007. Twelve years later, he is still part-time despite regularly working more than 30 hours a week, sometimes without a day off for several weeks and no accrued vacation time, Laurencio wrote.
McClatchy spokeswoman Jeanne Segal said the company continues to invest in its Miami operations despite downsizing and “saying goodbye to loyal, committed and talented colleagues.”
“We have built a subscription and publishing platform and scaled it across 30 of our communities and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to progress the Epstein investigation and many other important projects,” she said. “We’re committed to El Nuevo Herald despite two large media companies closing their Spanish-language editions.”
She added McClatchy is exploring new funding methods for local journalism such as The Miami Herald Investigative Lab, in which readers can donate money that would be earmarked for hiring more staff for the paper’s investigative unit. There’s an initial goal of $500,000 before the project is officially launched.
Amid the pro-online union campaign, Miami Herald managers, including Marqués, are pressuring employees to vote no with threats and scaremongering, the organizers allege. In an Oct. 17 tweet, One Herald Guild claimed management told staffers that there would be no salary raises for members of the collective bargaining unit during contract negotiations. A few days later, the guild tweeted a picture of a mandatory staff meeting that was characterized as “standard corporate union-busting strategy.” On Oct. 25, reporter David J. Neal tweeted: “Ready for Round 3 of management’s Mandatory Misinformation Re-Education sessions.”
Over the weekend, the guild posted on its website that managers allegedly made misleading statements about the union hurting the newsroom budget, the futility of advocating for improving working conditions, and employees’ right to show union support in the workplace. The group noted McClatchy found money that it previously claimed not to have to hire the law firm Jones Day to fight the union drive. “It could have avoided those costs and voluntarily recognized the union,” the guild said. “It also found money to replace old computers, when it previously said it didn’t have the resources.”
Staffers have also been informed that not wearing pro-union t-shirts made it easier to speak with them and that by tweeting support for a union, staffers had “broken a bargain,” according to the guild, which sent a letter to Marqués requesting she instruct all managers to stop using coercive statements and pressure tactics.
Marqués said the letter and the blog post made false allegations. “It appears to have been written by someone unfamiliar with both our newsroom and with me,” she said. “We respect our employees’ rights to consider having a union. However, we do not believe that a union would be good for our employees, The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.”
While a union can make promises to employees, management can’t do the same, Marqués said. “Nor do we believe in making promises that will not be kept,” she said. “There is no guarantee that wages and benefits will increase through negotiations.”
Because of the mail-in ballots from Tallahassee and Puerto Rico, the final results won’t be released until sometime in November, Flechas said. “At that point, when One Herald Guild wins the election, we can begin the process of preparing for collective bargaining,” he said. “We understand there are strong winds facing this industry. We want to forge a new type of collaboration with our employer to weather the storm.”