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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette strike lays bare union discord and could impact informed citizenry

  • Julia Zenkevich/WESA
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom employees walked off the job Tuesday in the city’s first newspaper strike in 30 years.

 Katie Blackley / WESA

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom employees walked off the job Tuesday in the city’s first newspaper strike in 30 years.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom employees walked off the job Tuesday in the city’s first newspaper strike in 30 years. But this latest work stoppage is taking place in a drastically different landscape for both media and labor, some observers say, and has surfaced discord within the newspaper union.

On Monday, newsroom employees of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh voted 38-36 on Monday to authorize an unfair labor practice strike. In a statement announcing the strike on Tuesday, the Guild said it represented 101 journalists in the Post-Gazette newsroom; the guild joined 60 other employees in the Communication Workers of America responsible for printing, designing, distributing and advertising sales, who have been on strike since October 6.

But not all the newsroom employees have gone along with the strike, with some resigning from the union and continuing to work. This group said in a statement that “dozens” of newsroom employees had resigned from the guild.

“We do not condone the strong-arm tactics of the Post-Gazette and Block Communications that have led to the strike. Many of us have supported members of other striking unions at the P-G by withholding our bylines and working remotely in recent weeks. We hope the local guild prevails in its unfair labor practice case against the company.”

The statement continued: “However, the strong-arm tactics of the CWA are worse.”

Union leadership declined to share the exact number but confirmed that “several” journalists resigned their membership in the union.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh’s last contract expired in 2017, and since then, negotiations have been fraught. In 2020, Post-Gazette management issued what the union called an “illegally declared impasse to contract negotiations.”

Non-striking workers said the CWA asked them to walk off of their jobs at the Post-Gazette “with less than 48 hours’ notice and no coherent plan for success.”

The CWA did not respond to a request for comment.

Post-Gazette management released a statement Tuesday saying they will “continue to serve the Pittsburgh community, our readers and advertisers, despite any work stoppage… We welcome our employees back at any time.”

The decision to strike wasn’t easy, said Post-Gazette digital news editor and News Guild secretary Alex McCann.

“Asking people to authorize a strike is likely the hardest ask that anybody in a union can ever ask of somebody. Asking people to walk off the job, to give up their work, to give up all of their benefits… we understand that that is a terribly difficult ask to make of people,” McCann said. “Those of us who have made this very difficult decision to strike don’t take it lightly.”

According to the News Guild, the Post-Gazette “illegally and unilaterally imposed new working conditions on the journalists of the Newspaper Guild,” cut their wages and senior employees’ vacation time. Members also said management tried to put the employees on the company health insurance plan, which offered less coverage at a higher price, rather than accept the union-negotiated health insurance plan from their 2017 contract.

Margaret Patterson, a professor of journalism at Duquesne University and former Pittsburgh Press reporter, noted that the strike could put both the paper and its reporters in a tough economic position.

“It’s not a great time for journalists to be looking for a job, so if this would mean the folding of the Post-Gazette, they might not be able to find another place to go,” Patterson said. “They’re not feeling economically secure, either that the strike will be settled and that everything will be ok, or, if the Block family [which owns the Post-Gazette] decides that they’ve had enough of this and they back out, that there will be a place for the existing staff to go. I think that they must be feeling like they’re in a precarious position.”

Patterson also shared concerns that because the strike seems to have originated with the CWA and not necessarily the newsroom workers, it could weaken their bargaining position.

“I think in this city where there’s a history of strong union support… I think they’ll still get a lot of support from people. But I think other people will see, as I do, that it’s not a good thing that the vote was so close and the reaction so mixed.”

“There are going to be a lot of stories we don’t hear”

Pittsburgh’s last newspaper strike transformed the city’s media landscape. In 1992, about 600 members of a Teamsters local representing truck drivers and circulation route managers at The Pittsburgh Press, then the city’s major newspaper, went on a months-long strike.

Scripps-Howard, which owned The Pittsburgh Press, decided to sell the paper rather than continue negotiations. The Block family bought the Press and merged it with the smaller Post-Gazette. That allowed an opening for the Tribune-Review, which at the time largely covered Westmoreland County, to expand coverage and circulation into Pittsburgh. The Trib then became the city’s second major newspaper.

“We weren’t really dealing with digital media yet [in 1992], but when we did have strong competition from the internet [later in the decade] and all that did to undermine news media, the fact that we had lost our most major newspaper weakened the digital [news] landscape,” Patterson said.

Andrew Conte, the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, said that today, there’s no doubt that a strike at an institution like the Post-Gazette will affect the local news landscape.

“Journalists are people who represent us at public meetings, and they ask questions and they report back to us what’s going on,” Conte said. “And if there are fewer people doing that, there are going to be a lot of stories we don’t hear and things we don’t know we don’t know. And ultimately it has the potential to hurt the whole community.”

During the 1992 strike, “it was like the whole city shut down, basically.” Conte said. “People were trying to figure out ‘Where am I going to figure out what’s going on?’ And ‘How do I get obits?’ and ‘Where do I find the comics?’ — All the things that happen when a newspaper goes away.”

Though there are other news outlets in the city today that can try to fill in the gaps, none has as much staff or as many resources as the Post-Gazette.

“It is newspapers that are still providing some foundation to the rest of the news outlets,” Patterson said, adding that “the splintering of how news is picked up and reported is very dangerous for democracy.”

“Democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and you can’t be an informed citizenry without reliable facts. And this strike is only one minor symptom of a much larger problem, which is that we need news sources that provide citizens with accurate information and information that they trust is accurate,” she said. “In metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh, that has always come from the newspapers, historically.”

And with a major election next month, Patterson said it will be important for people to have more information, not less.

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