LA Observed photo.
The news that union organizers are signing up workers at the Los Angeles Times, once a fierce anti-union bastion, is a fascinating footnote to the history of a city once dominated by the paper.
The news about the union sent me thinking in two directions--the role of the Times in Los Angeles civic life and the relationship of unions to the media in this time of staff reductions and lower pay, and worsening working conditions.
First the unions and the media, something I know a bit about.
The Times was built by one of America's most anti-union publishers, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis. So intense were his efforts to keep unions out of LA that the unions dynamited the place in 1910. His son in law, Harry Chandler, continued the family tradition. They shaped the politics of Los Angeles. The police department's "red squad" was a union-busting operation. In later years, the publishers kept the unions out by making it a wonderful place to work. When I arrived in 1970, publisher Otis Chandler presided over a workers' paradise. Outsider journalists referred to it as "the velvet coffin." Who needed a union?
In 1969, I was on strike against the Associated Press when I met the Times' metro editor, Bill Thomas (he later became editor). I was on a picket line, part of a Wire Service Guild strike.
The Times Sacramento bureau chief, Tom Goff, introduced me to Thomas after I had asked Goff about going to work at the Times. Goff brought him over to where I was on duty outside the AP office. I was wearing my "on strike" sign on a cord around my neck since placards were forbidden in the Capitol. Thomas said that if I ever had time off from my picketing duties, he'd like to have a drink. We met for that drink and got along fine. He didn't seem interested in the strike or my union activities, just my ideas about journalism. Several months later, I was on the Times staff in Los Angeles.
My first experience with unions was about a decade earlier. I was a young reporter on the Oakland Tribune. The son of our publisher, William F. Knowland, once a powerful senator, had run and lost for governor of California in 1958 on a union-busting right to work platform. By then, the paternalism of the Knowland family was vanishing and the paper was just beginning the downhill economic spiral that later afflicted the entire newspaper business. Rumors of layoffs swept through the staff. A handful of us began organizing an American Newspaper Guild chapter. We warned reluctant staff members that Knowland was coming back and there would be hell to pay. We won more than 90 percent of the vote, as I recall, and negotiated a contract with Knowland that gave us raises and other benefits.
I can imagine what the 200 Times workers signing up for the union (the New York Times estimate) are going through. Fear of firing, demotion and other retaliation is part of their lives, as it was ours. As we did, they have federal union law protections, but these have been weakened over the years. The Times workers showed a lot of courage in signing up for the union and I hope Los Angeles appreciates it.
I left the Times about a decade and a half ago when the paper had a great sense of civic responsibility, a feeling that it was one of the region's most important institutions. But from my few conversations and observation of Times coverage, I imagine one of the employee grievances is the stripping down of the staff. Among the areas that might be reduced is coverage of local government and politics. Overworked and overstressed, the reporters are required to cover institutions that have become bigger, more intrusive and possibly more corrupt.
Good reporters have a sense of civic duty. They like to think they are doing something important. What the Times is saying is "work faster. Attract readers. Being a civic watchdog doesn't attract readers clicking on to your stories."
Maybe the civic establishment likes less coverage. But I am around local politics and government enough to know that the good officials and civic activists don't feel that way. They appreciate a lot of reporters covering them. They appreciate watchdogs, even when dealing with such reporters is difficult. That's why I think organizing a union at the Times is a good thing.