Newsroom staff members at the award-winning Southern Illinoisan today formally announced their intention to form a union dedicated to preserving quality journalism amid cutbacks and mounting financial pressures in the newspaper industry.
The employees filed documents with the National Labor Relations Board stating their desire to be represented by the United Media Guild, which is affiliated with The NewsGuild-CWA. The filing will trigger an NLRB-run election sometime in the next several weeks.
“The Southern Illinoisan has provided a voice for the region for over 100 years, but I’m deeply concerned with the direction of the newspaper under the Lee Enterprises business model,” said Todd Hefferman, a reporter at the Southern since 2003.
If a majority of those voting cast ballots in favor, employees in the news and sports sections will unionize and begin working with the Southern’s corporate owner, Lee Enterprises, to negotiate a first labor contract.
“Negotiating a good contract will help us continue to be a watchdog for the region and produce the quality journalism southern Illinois demands from us,” Hefferman said.
The organizing effort began after an unannounced mass layoff further destabilized the newsroom in late January.
“We believe those losses went beyond the obvious human impact,” said Greg Keller, a copy editor with the Southern since 2014. “We believe cuts to local journalism run counter to our mission statement of being a force for positive change in the communities we serve.”
The fault doesn’t fall on local management, organizers of the unionizing effort said. These decisions have been imposed on the newspaper by distant decision-makers with little direct connection to southern Illinois, organizers said.
“The United Media Guild is thrilled to represent the newsroom at the Southern,” said Jeff Gordon, president of the St. Louis-based United Media Guild. “Our new members there are dedicated to maintaining this important institution for the region. They join our members in St. Louis, Springfield, Pekin, Peoria and Rockford in fighting for the craft of journalism in the face of corporate cutbacks.”
The effort has received support from other labor unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has a large presence in the area.
“The Southern Illinoisan plays a vital role in chronicling developments of importance to those who live and work in southern Illinois,” said Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council 31. “As with any enterprise, its greatest resource is the employees who make it happen. You deserve respect and fair treatment. Congratulations on taking the surest path to assuring such treatment by coming together to form a union.”
The staff of the Southern would join workers at the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune and the Missoula (Mont.) Independent — two other Lee papers where successful newsroom organizing campaigns have taken place in recent months. This organizing drive continues a wave of union organizing in newsrooms across the United States, including the Los Angeles Times and the recently announced drive at the Chicago Tribune.
A mission statement drafted by supporters of the unionizing effort (see below) says Southern Illinoisan employees “need a more formal voice in the workplace” to counteract a corporate mentality that leads to “decisions based solely on the bottom line.”