L.A. Times Staff Votes to Unionize in Blow to Owner Tronc

(Bloomberg) -- The Los Angeles Times’ editorial staff voted to unionize in a rebuke to owner Tronc Inc. that marks a new era in the newspaper’s 136-year history.

The employees’ union, NewsGuild, won the vote by a margin of more than 5-to-1, organizer Nastaran Mohit said Friday. The guild is an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America union, which has been organizing at the Times since late 2016.

“We respect the outcome of the election and look forward to productive conversations with union leadership as we move forward,” Marisa Kollias, a Tronc spokeswoman, said in an email.

The company also said Friday that Ross Levinsohn, the L.A. Times’ publisher, is taking a voluntary unpaid leave while the company looks into allegations of misconduct.

The vote heralds the beginning of a bargaining process that’s sure to prove contentious. Like the rest of the industry, the L.A. Times has been in almost constant turmoil in recent years, amid dwindling readership, falling advertising revenue, editorial shakeups and, most recently, the allegations against its publisher. Meanwhile, the company that eventually became Tronc has lurched from bankruptcy to a spinoff to a change in ownership and, finally, a new name in under a decade.

Shares of Chicago-based Tronc rose 1.6 percent to $19.53 at the close. They’re up 11 percent this year.

Tronc, which also publishes the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, aggressively fought the labor drive in meetings, online and in emails. In a Jan. 3 email to employees that was reviewed by Bloomberg, interim Executive Editor Jim Kirk and Editor in Chief Lewis D’Vorkin warned: “Union leaders may tell you they can protect against layoffs but they didn’t at the New York Times, Huffington Post, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.”

“There was a time, way back when, when a guild couldn’t make headway in the newsroom, because the people were treated very well,” Paul Pringle, an investigative reporter who helped spearhead the drive, said in an interview before the vote. “Those days are over.”

Ballots for the union vote were counted Friday at a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, which conducted in-person voting Jan. 4 and has since been receiving mail-in ballots. If the result is formally certified by the board, Tronc will be required to negotiate with the Guild over a collective bargaining agreement. Among the issues to be addressed will be whether certain editors belong in the bargaining unit, something the parties were previously unable to resolve.

Union activists said their campaign was driven by employees’ desire to address compensation issues, protect journalistic integrity, and have a check on management amid concerns about Tronc’s agenda for the newspaper.

The NewsGuild’s organizing committee at the paper cried foul over management moves including a $5 million-a-year consulting agreement that Tronc signed in December with its Chairman Michael Ferro’s Merrick Ventures. On Thursday, the guild called for Levinsohn, the Times’ fifth publisher in five years, to resign amid a report he had been a defendant in two separate sexual harassment lawsuits and admitted to rating his female colleagues’ “hotness” while also speculating whether one of them worked as a stripper.

In a memo emailed to employees reviewed by Bloomberg News, Tronc Chief Executive Officer Justin Dearborn said Friday the company has brought in the law firm Sidley Austin LLP to review the allegations against Levinsohn.

“I want to reemphasize to you all that the company takes any allegations of inappropriate behavior by its employees very seriously,” Dearborn wrote.

The L.A. Times was controlled for much of its 136 years by the Chandler family, before being sold in 2000 to Tribune Co., which was taken over by billionaire Sam Zell in 2007. The parent filed for bankruptcy shortly after, then emerged from protection in 2012 and spun off Tribune Publishing in 2014.

Four years later, Ferro gained control of Tribune Publishing and renamed it Tronc -- for Tribune Online Content. The Times’ daily circulation now totals 273,752, a fraction of its April 1990 peak of 1.23 million.

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