A unionization effort by smaller community papers within the Baltimore Sun Media Group was voluntarily recognized by parent company Tribune Publishing, clearing the way for contract negotiations between the two sides.
Reporters from The Capital in Annapolis, The Carroll County Times, The Aegis in Harford County, SoundOff! at Fort Meade and other Baltimore Sun Media Group journalists last month announced the formation of the Chesapeake New Guild in a roll-out that included a video calling for higher wages and more job stability.
With Tribune signing a Voluntary Recognition Agreement, the two parties avoid having to go before the National Labor Relations Board for an election to demonstrate the journalists have the majority necessary to unionize.
“Obviously, we are very excited. We are grateful that Tribune is willing to meet us at this point, instead of going through the time-consuming process of an election,” said Cody Boteler, a reporter covering Baltimore County for Baltimore Sun Media Group.
In coming days, an arbitrator will check the cards signed by employees wishing to join the bargaining unit against a list of eligible employees to verify the majority. Once that formality is completed, negotiations can begin.
Even before that starts, Boteler said he and his colleagues are happy to finally have a seat at the table.
“We are doing it so we can have a voice, and we can have a say in these decisions rather than reacting,” he said.
For obvious reasons, Boteler was not showing the guild’s cards ahead of the contract discussions, but he did touch on an issue raised in the video announcement: giving journalists a living wage. (Full disclosure: Boteler and I worked together during my time at City Paper.)
There’s a big difference between the salaries at the flagship Baltimore Sun, which has been unionized for decades, and the community papers owned by the local media company, he said.
“I think it’s safe to say we want to narrow that gap a little bit.”
Management at both Tribune and Baltimore Sun Media Group did not try to run any interference on the union effort or dissuade participation, Boteler said. The only dispute came over the eligibility of employees at SoundOff! given the organization’s military affiliation, but management eventually agreed to include them as part of the unit.
“It wasn’t difficult for us to fight for them,” said Boteler. “So far the company has been good-faith partners in this process.”
Reached for comment, Baltimore Sun Media Group spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik said, “We have been in discussions with representatives of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. To be clear, recognition of this new bargaining unit is contingent on the outcome of an authorization card check.”
That check is scheduled for next week, she said.
This agreement comes as Tribune is offering company-wide buyouts to union and non-union employees with 10 years of service to meet financial targets, rendering today’s victory “bittersweet” for Capital reporter Danielle Ohl.
While it’s not yet clear how deep the cuts will extend in The Sun‘s newsroom, the first wave of people to accept the buyout trickled out last week and included several journalists who otherwise would have been part of the Chesapeake News Guild.
Publicly, The Sun bid farewell to longtime newsroom administrator Elaine Nichols, who has worked at the paper for 52 years.
In the face of buyouts at the community papers that amounted to a loss of more than 100 years of experience, Boteler agreed with Ohl’s assessment.
“There’s not a way to get that sort of institutional knowledge back, you just can’t,” he said. “I definitely think it’s bittersweet.”