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Est. April 5, 2002
October 22, 2015 - Issue 626

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Union Organizing
Moving Slowly
But It’s Moving


"Fast food workers, car wash workers,
retail workers, and others have been
fighting for better pay and working
conditions, as well as a $15 minimum
wage.  In many ways, they have been
successful in approaching that goal,
but they are not in unions, yet."

As newspaper staff levels have dropped precipitously over the past few years, the quality of most dailies has dropped at about the same rate.

Without staff, there is less news covered and the information necessary for a free people to do their democratic business becomes harder to come by.  Yes, there is a ton of information that is spewed out online every day, but a good citizen has to be careful about the source of that information that is passed off as news.

More and more people are getting their news from online sources and many of those sources are not of the quality that we might have been accustomed to in past generations.   As partisan as they might have been in times past, there was a process that young news gatherers had to endure to become a reporter.  There was tradition, there was training, there was education (usually by peers), and the business of the newspaper was likely to be at the same geographical location for a long time.

With online publications, it is more difficult to make sure that what you are reading is up to the standard of the “old days,” when things were more ordered, at least in terms of the abilities and skills of the researchers and writers.   So, if one is careful, there is plenty of good information that can be obtained from the Internet.  You just have to be certain of the source and the integrity of the individual writer and, of course, the website itself. 

It took years for newspaper reporters and columnists to realize that they did not have to spend their entire lives as “ink-stained wretches,” as they came to describe themselves.  They were working for paltry wages and they could be fired at will and often were fired.  In the mid-1930s, in the heat of union organizing that resulted from the newly minted National Labor Relations Act, they realized that they, too, could form a union.  They did and it was The Newspaper Guild, which in short order secured contracts, which improved wages, working conditions, health insurance, and pensions. 

Improvements continued to be won by the Guild, from that time to this current time of contraction of the entire newspaper industry.  But the union could not save newspapers or their reporters, editors, columnists, and all of the other workers in the company.  The newspaper staffers are doing what they can, but their power is limited by outside forces:  the war that has been waged for generations against workers and unions by corporations and politicians, an economy that has been in crisis for years, courts that have been hostile to workers, and laws that were passed over a long period of time that have kept workers in an inferior position to big business and right wing politicians.

Now, however, there is a new source for news and a large percentage of America is getting its news from Internet news websites.  Much of it may be questionable as far as its accuracy and reliability go, but they do get it from there, especially among the 18-40 population.

The workers in those new news websites do not necessarily have to put in the time and education to meet the standards that once existed.  In fact, anyone can start a site or a blog, without a day of experience.  The news websites that have huge followings today are in the general mold of newspapers of old, when they employed “ink stained wretches” to provide their “content.”  Lots of the writers, reporters, and columnists are good, some are excellent, and many of them are men and women who cut their teeth on the low paid staff of a daily newspaper.  Often, these old newspaper types are what can give the site the integrity they need to compensate for a general lack of experience.

In 2015, however, the writers and editors are facing the same problems that old newspaper reporters faced in the 1930s and they appear to be willing to do something about it.   They are joining unions.  No one likes to work for little or nothing, especially when they are putting in the same kind of hours their counterparts did for newspapers years ago.  In their effort to unionize, they have an advantage in that many news sites are liberal or progressive in tenor and those who own or run them are in favor and support of unions.

When ThinkProgress ( staffers decided to organize with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the union reported that management had agreed to voluntarily recognize their union.  Other Web-based news organizations have been unionized, either with the WGA or the NewsGuild  (formerly the Newspaper Guild) and more are considering it.   They are doing it for the same reasons:  stability in employment, equality in wages and benefits, protection of the jobs, no matter who owns the enterprise.

It is true that the staff of news web sites is a small portion of working America and, for the most part, the employers are not hostile to either their workers or their union, it’s a start and a sign that younger workers are aware of the benefits of unionization.  In a similar way, workers over the past few years have been “acting in concert,” as provided to them by federal labor law and protected by the same law. 

Fast food workers, car wash workers, retail workers, and others have been fighting for better pay and working conditions, as well as a $15 minimum wage.  In many ways, they have been successful in approaching that goal, but they are not in unions, yet.   That should come later, when they realize that they are part of something bigger than their own workplace.  There is a labor movement out there, along with the unions, and workers are bound to realize that. 

Right now, some of the workers who are organizing themselves are being helped and guided by unions, but they are not ready to join the union just yet.  There are untold thousands of workers in the low wage service industries, unlike the news website outlets, but they are all on the march.  Government agencies have reported that unionized workers earn about 27 percent more than non-union workers.  That statistic alone might cause unorganized workers to consider joining the union.  It could signal the second historic wave of unionization in the U.S., second only to the period between the mid-1930s and 1954.  That’ll be quite a revolution. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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