After labor's big Amazon defeat, Gannett journalists in New Jersey push to unionize

Days after one corporate titan broke an organizing drive, the biggest name in local news faces another

By Bob Hennelly
Published April 13, 2021 9:50AM (UTC)
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An Amazon-sponsored billboard urging employees to return their unionization ballots is seen on March 28, 2021, in Bessemer, Alabama. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

As destiny would have it, just days after Amazon used illegal tactics to derail a union organizing drive by warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, to journalists in northern New Jersey who work for Gannett are voting on whether or not to form a union. They are affiliated with NorthJersey.com, the Bergen Record, the Daily Record and the NJ Herald.

In both cases the workers putting so much at risk to form a union are like David facing off with Goliath. Armed only with their courage to stand up for a collective sense of right and wrong, they face multi-billion-dollar corporate behemoths that are the very engine of the wealth concentration and radical income disparity that have come to define the global economy.

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As multiple economic studies have documented, since the 1970s workers have seen their wages flatline or decline, even as technology saw their productivity — the wealth their labor generated — grow exponentially.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the newspaper business which I entered through the loading dock door decades ago at the Ridgewood Newspapers in Bergen County, where I started in the typesetting and composition department.

As a reporter, I watched as technology reduced the number of people it took to produce the newspaper, but those labor savings never found its way into the paychecks of those of us who continued to do the actual work.

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Rather it went to the capital interests that swallowed up local newspapers, which permitted Wall Street types to corner the entire industry.

We were told we were lucky to have jobs, a mantra that has only gotten louder as the corporate titans like Gannett, which now owns one in five of America's newspapers, has gutted the staffs of the local newspapers it has devoured in an unrelenting squeeze play that puts profits over people.

"Since 2016, we have seen more than half of our colleagues lose their jobs, with cuts of over 250 people at The Record, the Daily Record and the NJ Herald," wrote the Gannett employees seeking union representation in their mission statement. "Staffers who were unceremoniously laid off include a reporter nearly nine months pregnant and a 30-year-veteran reporter who was forced to take a buyout after missing a single email to opt out of the process."

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Their statement continued. "By forming a union, we are taking a stand for respect and dignity, and greater protections against unjust terminations and reductions in force. We are uniting with NewsGuild members around the country in a movement to save local news and ensure a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect our paper and the news coverage we provide. There is no journalism without journalists."

Gannett is hardly alone. According to the Pew Research Center's analysis, U.S. newspapers "have shed half of their newsroom employees since 2008."

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"From 2008 to 2019, overall newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23%, according to the new analysis," Pew reported. "In 2008, there were about 114,000 newsroom employees — reporters, editors, photographers and videographers — in five industries that produce news: newspaperradiobroadcast televisioncable and 'other information services' (the best match for digital-native news publishers). By 2019, that number had declined to about 88,000, a loss of about 27,000 jobs."

With the contraction of authentically reported local news, what filled the void was social media clickbait and propaganda as the nation lost the vital sense of situational awareness that comes from a vibrant local press. It's not hard to track the devolution of our national circumstance to the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which thousands were ready to overthrow our democracy because in their own cyber-bubble they were convinced the 2020 election had been stolen.

After all, they heard it on the "news."

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What has happened to the news-gathering workforce played out across every other industry and has only accelerated since the early 1980s when President Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike, also banning from federal employment for life. His scorched-earth approach got traction with private employers who adopted similar tactics.

Before Reagan's mass firing, close to one in four Americans was represented by a union. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 10.8 percent are, which is actually a 0.5 percent increase from the year before.

In transportation, where crews on trains and ships have been slashed, the results have been calamitous for people and the planet. Consider the runway oil train that was unattended when in 2014 it leveled a Quebec community's downtown, killing 47 residents. Maritime fatigue, the result of short staffing, has produced oil spills visible from space.

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In the health care sector we see it in the business model of nursing homes, where profiteers pay as little as they can to as few people as possible to care for our most vulnerable. More than a year into the COVID pandemic, we have seen the consequences of that business model carried on the backs of low-wage caregivers who have often had to work in more than one facility to make ends meet, sometimes spread the deadly virus in the process.

With the historical decline of unions, there's been an explosion in so-called gig workers, who as "independent contractors" are part of a precarious workforce that lacks the basic safety net of health care or access to workers compensation in the event they are injured or disabled while working.

No doubt, they too, are told they are lucky to have a job, even if they can't really call it that.

At both the state and federal level, our democracy has become captive to capital interests that have successfully pressed for deregulation in a world where corporations can plot global domination for maximum profits, all subsidized by tax policy. Meanwhile, workers are blocked at every turn from organizing collectively in their own and their community's self-interest.

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And what has this brave new world dominated by Goliaths like Amazon and Gannett given us?

According to Forbes, in October the Federal Reserve found that the top one percent of Americans had a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion in wealth, or 30.4 percent of all U.S. household wealth, while the bottom 50 percent of the population held just $2.1 trillion, or 1.9 percent of all wealth.

Is it merely coincidental that the breathtaking concentration of corporate media power that Gannett represents comes as the well-documented concentration of wealth continues to grow, even accelerating during the pandemic?

Let's hope our colleagues at The Record, the Daily Record and the NJ Herald can carry the day and form a union. It's about so much more than their jobs.


Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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