By: Joe Strupp
A new push to organize a Newspaper Guild unit at The Miami Herald, spurred in part by the recent controversial firing of columnist Jim DeFede, has prompted Herald management to wage an upfront campaign against allowing the union in, reporters and executives say.
Editor Tom Fiedler acknowledged holding at least five meetings with different newsroom departments in August to essentially talk them out of any guild organizing effort. Fiedler, a longtime Herald staffer and former reporter, is starkly opposed to the idea of a guild, which he claims would make the paper worse.
“I could not think of an instance where a guild organizing effort actually made a newspaper better and I can think of many instances where the guild has hurt newspapers and made it difficult to adapt to changes,” Fiedler told E&P. “Guilds essentially ensure mediocrity.”
Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild-CWA in Washington, D.C., would neither confirm nor deny that a guild organizing effort is currently underway at the Herald. But Foley took strong exception to Fiedler’s comments, saying the union has made lives better.
“Obviously, I don’t agree with [his assessment],” Foley told E&P after hearing Fiedler’s opinion. “Where we have the guild, we have strong newspapers and wherever people have a voice on the job, they do a better job. But it wouldn’t surprise me if someone in management said that.”
Several Herald staffers told E&P that preliminary, unofficial talks within the newsroom about a guild organizing campaign had begun several months ago, but nothing official involving petition drives or formal organizing. If a guild unit formed at the Herald it would be the first guild shop in the entire state, Foley said.
When DeFede was fired on July 27 after taping a phone conversation with a former city commissioner who later killed himself, the interest in a union effort increased, staffers said.
“It was slow-moving, then the DeFede thing happened and it was like a lighting bolt in the newsroom,” said photographer Tim Chapman, a 33-year Herald veteran. “In the opinion of a lot of staffers, they felt that there had been no process. That if it could happen to DeFede, it could happen to anyone.”
Tony Winton, a Florida-based Associated Press staffer and president of Guild Local 31222, which represents all AP and UPI staffers nationwide through a New York office, also would not confirm or deny a Herald union push. “I’m not in any position to comment on anything at this time,” he said. “Generally speaking, when the guild is involved in organizing, the goal is to protect workers and their rights and sometimes you can’t talk about it.”
Fiedler realized the interest was growing for a union shop in early August when another editor told him of a conversation overheard between two staffers about whether they should seek a union vote. “One was apparently trying to persuade the other to sign the card you sign when you are looking to get the union to organize,” Fiedler said. “Based on that conversation, the Jim DeFede concern being part of it, I wanted to have meetings with different departments. It was very informal and an opportunity for me to address the factual issues.”
The editor said he wanted staffers to know what he saw as negative aspects of a guild shop, particularly what he saw as a lack of flexibility on changing policies or salaries. He acknowledged that some employees might be concerned about job security in the wake of DeFede’s firing and believe that a union would better protect them. “I can understand that feeling,” Fiedler said. “But the decisions on hiring and firing always weigh with management. That outcome would not have changed.”
Publisher Jesus Diaz also attended several of the meetings, where he said managers simply wanted to give their view of a guild presence. “We wanted to make clear that we were against a guild shop and give the reasons,” Diaz said. “One reason is that you start negotiating everything from a low base and everything is open to negotiations.”
Diaz also pointed out to employees that Florida’s right-to-work laws would allow them to avoid joining the union, or paying dues, but require them to work under union contact provisions. He also brought up the lack of flexibility argument. “For example, if an employee goes above and beyond the call, you may not be able to give them a spot bonus depending on the agreement,” he said.
The publisher added that the increased union buzz had prompted him to remind supervisors about the legalities involved in dealing with employees who may be pursuing union representation. “When we heard that signatures had been gathered, we met with managers and told them there are things they can and cannot say,” he explained. “We wanted to make sure we did everything by the rules.”
As an example, Diaz said an across-the-board raise given now could be construed as an effort to essentially bribe workers into opposing the guild. Managers also cannot take any action or make comments that could be perceived as threatening against guild organizers or those seeking to join.
Several employees who requested anonymity said the management meetings were an obvious effort to oppose a guild movement. But none said they felt threatened or otherwise pressured not to join. “They talked about how the guild isn’t necessarily a good thing,” said one reporter who did not want to be identified. “I think they know there has been some renewed impetus when the [DeFede] thing happened.”
Chapman, who attended the meeting held in the photography department, said the gatherings show management is fearful that a guild unit could come about. “I think they’re very concerned that the guild might be supported,” he said. “Even if it is just in the editorial unit.”
Foley said she was not surprised that DeFede’s firing would cause some staffers to seek guild protection. “I think it does show that they will scapegoat people up to the point of firing them,” Foley said about Herald management. “Obviously people there do not trust management to do the right thing because they did not do right by Jim DeFede.”