Eighteen of the 20 employees in The Desert Sun newsroom have signed on to the unionization effort.

Nearly all of the 20 or so employees that remain in The Desert Sun’s newsroom want to unionize.

On Dec. 17, employees of the Coachella Valley’s 94-year-old daily newspaper announced they had “filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board and requested voluntary recognition from Gannett, the paper’s parent company. Members of the organizing committee also presented local management with the request after 90 percent of eligible staffers signed cards saying they want to be represented by The Desert Sun NewsGuild. The group will become a unit of Media Guild of the West, a local of The NewsGuild-CWA, the nation’s largest union for news industry employees.”

Brian Blueskye is The Desert Sun’s arts and culture reporter (and a former Independent staff member).

“We’ve seen a lot of changes at The Desert Sun, such as our printing-press operations moving over to Phoenix,” Blueskye said. In September 2020, the Palm Springs-based printing plant run by Gannett was shuttered, and that work was consolidated into the Phoenix printing operation.

“Also, over the years, various colleagues who have contributed amazing journalism to our publication have been leaving to other publications for better opportunities,” Blueskye said. “And we’ve wondered: What can we do to start keeping our colleagues? There are many of us who’d like to continue working at The Desert Sun, and we’ve basically tried to come up with a way to ensure the publication survives, because we’re now a newsroom of 20 or so people—and we used to be much larger. Right now, we’re feeling the burden (compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic), and we’re feeling the squeeze, and if this is going to be the case, then how does the publication survive? We want to create an environment that provides opportunity, provides fair compensation and produces high-quality journalism.

“We need a diverse staff, and we’ve really pushed for diversity, because we’re a diverse valley. We need someone who’s able to cover the east valley who knows that community and knows how to reach that community. It’s only fair that a news staff reflects the diversity of its readership.”

Gannett Co., Inc., with headquarters in McLean, Va., is the largest newspaper company in the country, with $1.86 billion in revenues in 2019. The company was acquired in November 2019 by New Media Investment Group, the parent company of Gatehouse Media; the combined company then took the Gannett name. In recent years, as Gannett has made multiple rounds of layoffs, consolidations and buyouts, various company newsrooms have made the decision to unionize.

The merger and the expected resulting cuts have received federal attention. In November 2019, three members of the U.S. Senate called on GateHouse/Gannett executives to voluntarily recognize any union formed by a majority of workers in any of the companies’ newsrooms.

“Union representation will empower workers to advocate not only for themselves but also their newspapers and communities,” said the letter which was signed by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ). “In many communities, local newspapers are the primary source of news and information, yet the consequences of closing or hollowing out a newspaper are not considered by news executives seeking to maximize shareholder value and profit. Through collective bargaining with the newsrooms, affected communities will have a voice in decisions about their newspapers.”

However, Gannett has failed to heed the senators’ plea: Time and again, when Gannett’s newsrooms have requested voluntary recognition of their newly established NewsGuild-CWA units, the parent company has refused—and then proceeded to make the union adoption process as difficult as possible.

At this point, we’re Gannett in brand only. We’re owned by a private-equity company on the East Coast. Now, I don’t know those guys personally, but you’d really have to convince me that they’re journalism fans (and appreciate) the things that we do, which is to try to uphold truth in our communities and defend democracy.

Mark olalde, the desert sun’s environment reporter

Gannett’s corporate-communications office did not respond to a request for comment from the Independent.

Mark Olalde is the environment reporter at The Desert Sun, and a member of the staff’s union-organizing committee.

“As of today, our bargaining unit consists of 20 people who are photographers, reporters and producers,” Olalde said. Of those 20 people, 18 have signed official union-authorization cards, and in addition to those, an additional person has signed a public-facing statement of support. So we had signed support from 19 out of 20 staff members before we went public, which only leaves one member still trying to decide if this is the right decision for them specifically. So, right now, 95 percent of the unit is in support of the effort.”

However, as with unionization attempts in other Gannett newsrooms, the company has not made that effort easy.

“We just need Gannett to say, ‘OK, it’s clear you guys want this, so we’ll voluntarily recognize you.’ That’s all we need right now,” Olalde said. “But they refused, so instead, this will be going to a vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, under the Federal National Labor Relations Act. After we agree on the unit, which looks like it will be 20 (staff members), we’ll need 50 percent plus one (to approve the establishment of the unit). So, we’ll need 11 votes out of the 20. What makes it such a head-scratcher is that when we came to Gannett, they said, ‘No thanks. We’re not sure you have enough support for this, and we want to push you to a vote.’”

The process to establish the union unit at The Desert Sun is now being driven by representatives of the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, which is the national umbrella union the paper’s staffers will be joining.

“Currently, they’re bargaining with the outside counsel that Gannett has decided to pay,” Olalde said. “They’ll be deciding on the terms of the vote, and then when they’ve decided on that, there will be a mail-in vote most likely, due to safety concerns. In the recent past, even during the pandemic, Gannett has sought to make these votes in-person to, I don’t know, endanger your health for no reason. When that vote happens, and we overwhelmingly win, we’ll be an officially recognized union—and at that point, we go to bargaining, and we’ll start fighting for the specific things that we want to see our members get in a contract.”

Olalde said he expected the vote to take place by the end of January, and for the union to be certified by the end of February.

“So around March 1, we should be in the union, and after that, we’ll be turning our attention to the bargaining process,” Olalde said. “Now, the bargaining process could take anywhere from weeks to a year and a half or longer, which I’ve seen at some other newspapers.”

Olalde said the union is badly needed by journalists in The Desert Sun newsroom.

“There are just such glaring issues that need to be fixed here,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is emerge from this process with pay equity for our members of color, and our female members. We want to emerge with guaranteed safety equipment and standards in place, for whether we’re reporting out in the field during the pandemic, or at wildfires, or riots or whatever it might be. We actually want to walk the walk in terms of prioritizing diversity in hiring as opposed to just setting goals that are never really enforced or honestly worked toward—and we want to protect our veteran members to make sure that, just because they get older, the company doesn’t move them over to the curb.

“You know, there are a lot of things that sound like common sense to me, but are things the company is so very slowly moving toward. At this point, we’re Gannett in brand only. We’re owned by a private-equity company on the East Coast. Now, I don’t know those guys personally, but you’d really have to convince me that they’re journalism fans (and appreciate) the things that we do, which is try to uphold truth in our communities and defend democracy. So I’m not convinced that these new owners, who are in the money industry, have those same priorities as us. But we’ll fight that fight at the local level. I think we’re fighting for a lot of good things for a lot of good people.”

For more information, visit www.desertsunnewsguild.org.

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...