Chicago Tribune Staff Seeks Union in Challenge to Tronc

(Bloomberg) -- The Chicago Tribune’s editorial staff announced an effort to unionize, delivering a fresh challenge to owner Tronc Inc. following the resignation of its chairman amid accusations of sexual misconduct.

The plan to form a bargaining unit comes two months after Tronc said it would sell its flagship newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, to billionaire investor Patrick Soon-Shiong in a $500 million deal. Before the sale, Times employees voted to unionize and pressured Tronc into replacing editor-in-chief Lewis D’Vorkin.

“This would be the first union for editorial employees in the Tribune’s 170-year history, and we know you may have questions,” a committee of 46 employees said in a letter circulated to co-workers on Wednesday. “We did too. Feel free to approach any of us. We would love to talk to you.”

Read more: Chairman of Tribune Parent resigns amid sex-harassment claims

Citing issues they said include irregular raises, lack of diversity and the absence of job security, the employees wrote that “a series of corporate owners -- Tronc being only the most recent -- has jeopardized our ability do great work.” The workers said they would soon begin circulating union cards for the NewsGuild, the same Communications Workers of America affiliate that is headed into bargaining with the Los Angeles Times.

In a letter to employees shared by the company, Tribune’s publisher and editor-in-chief, Bruce Dold, acknowledged the union drive.

“Everyone in Chicago Tribune management has the utmost respect for the decisions you make and for your rights on this issue,” he said, before citing a recent increase in employee compensation that he described as part of ongoing efforts to promote diversity, reward top performers and remain competitive.

Dold urged employees to brings questions, concerns and ideas to management. “We’re listening,” he said at the close of his letter. “My door is open. Please come on in.”

The Tribune, whose publisher a century ago called it the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” had average weekday circulation of 492,000 in 2016, a decline of about 40 percent from the 1960s. Its shares were little changed at $16.19 at 11:50 a.m. in New York on Wednesday. They’re down 8 percent this year.

Harsh Climate

The Times and Tribune are among a wave of media outlets whose workers organized in recent years amid a harsh economic climate for once-thriving newspapers and turbulent conditions in digital media. The NewsGuild’s victories have included Law360, the Daily Beast and the Guardian. The Writers Guild of America East has won recognition at outlets including the Huffington Post, Gizmodo Media Group and Vox Media, where the union plans to livestream a meeting of its bargaining committee Wednesday afternoon. “An uprising is taking hold among journalists -- a fight for the heart and soul of the profession,” the NewsGuild said in a statement Wednesday.

Tronc, whose properties also include the Baltimore Sun, sought unsuccessfully last year to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times. That paper was purchased by an investment group led by a former alderman and a coalition of labor unions.

Chicago-based Tronc aggressively opposed the Los Angeles Times unionization campaign in meetings, online and in emails. On Jan. 3, the day before voting began there, the paper’s interim executive editor and editor in chief wrote to employees, “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.”

The NewsGuild chapter of the Los Angeles Times is also releasing a survey Wednesday that alleges a significant pay gap among staff there. Based on data the union requested from Tronc as part of contract negotiations, the NewsGuild said, women of color in the bargaining unit are paid less than 70 percent what white men are.

“We were deeply troubled,” reporter and Times Guild vice chair Matt Pearce said in an email. “We strongly urge the company to examine whether these disparities also exist at our sister publications.”

Tronc Chairman Michael Ferro stepped down on March 19, just hours before Fortune magazine detailed sexual-harassment accusations against him by two women. He was replaced on the board by Chief Executive Officer Justin Dearborn, who now holds both titles.

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