The Eugene Newspaper Guild is a labor organization for journalists and other media workers. Right now, the union is in ongoing contract negotiations with GateHouse publishing, the new owner of The Register-Guard.
The Guild is also involved in another set of negotiations with the paper’s former owners-- the Baker family. KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert sits down with a Guild representative to talk about the past, present and future of this 90 year old daily paper.
Randi Bjornstad has a long history with The Register-Guard. She was a reporter for 28 years and has been a member of the Guild for decades. In 2016, she was fired from the paper after participating in union activity on behalf of a fellow reporter who was terminated and sued. Bjornstad filed a grievance with the National Guild. They represented her in arbitration and she won.
“The arbitrator ordered the company to offer me a job back,” Bjornstad says, “and to pay back all lost wages and benefits.”
Bjornstad chose not to go back to the Register-Guard. She says the Bakers didn’t want her back. In fact, they said they would be willing to add to the settlement if she did not return to work.
But Bjornstad did remain co-president of the Guild and she’s on the bargaining team for an employee contract with the new owners. Meanwhile, there is another bit of bargaining going on with the Guild and the Baker family’s Guard Publishing
“And that is ‘effects bargaining,’” says Bjornstad, “bargaining with the sellers over the effects of the sale on the employees who no longer work for them because in effect, everyone was laid off from their employment on the day of the sale. So it was our job as a Guild to bargain those effects and present costs to the company that we believe they are still liable for.”
The union contends Guard Publishing owes full severance to Guild covered employees who were on the payroll the date of the sale. The Bakers disagree-- so now they will go to arbitration.
And then, there’s the issue of Unfair Labor Practices.
Guild representatives say in the Fall of 2017, Wendy Baker, who was lead negotiator on behalf of Guard Publishing, asked Guild employees (like reporters, editors and ad reps) to take cuts in wages, health care and vacation time in order to keep the company afloat and maintain it in local ownership. The Guild considers this to be an unfair labor practice and a violation of federal labor law.
“Which goes back to the fact that they were bargaining in bad faith,” Bjornstad says. “It isn’t quite right to be telling a bargaining unit that they need to make concessions to you so you can retain your ownership and keep your employees and run your operation while you are at the same time negotiating to sell.”
The sale was announced January 20, 2018.
There are currently only 48 Guild covered employees at The Register-Guard, way down from past years. Bjornstad says layoffs will continue to shrink union ranks. As for the next labor contract, the new owner, GateHouse Publishing is allowed to establish the terms and conditions they want and the union will have to start bargaining from there.
After she lost her job at the RG, Bjornstad started working on a new enterprise—a non-profit website (Eugenescene.org) covering arts and culture, a beat she covered at the newspaper for years. She worries we are witnessing the end of something important. The Register-Guard *was one of the last family-owned, independent newspapers in America.
“The people who have devoted themselves to this work for many years are in despair over the changes that are going to be made,” Bjornstad says. “When holding companies buy newspapers and their goals are to cut cost as much as possible maximize their return. And the result is the death of the newspaper. And we’re seeing that already.”
Bjornstad will continue to wear her union hat and bargain contracts for her former colleagues. She says negotiations could be protracted, given there is only one person who negotiates employee contracts for all GateHouse papers throughout the country. The next bargaining sit down is June 19.
Editor’s Note: KLCC has reached out to Wendy Baker, lead contract negotiator for Guard Publishing, and have not yet received a response.
**This is part of KLCC’s continuing coverage on the changes at The Register-Guard.