Journalists unionize at Vancouver newspaper The Columbian

DELEGATION: Employees of The Columbian prepare to deliver the news — they’re unionizing — to the publisher.

By Don McIntosh

On Friday night, Scott Campbell — owner of Vancouver’s The Columbian newspaper — received the “business of the year” award from the Labor Roundtable of Southwest Washington for good local journalism and fair treatment of labor. On Monday morning, his news room employees asked him to voluntarily recognize a union. He declined.

Now the newly formed Columbian Guild is asking the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election. If the election proves the union has majority support, The Columbian would be legally obligated to recognize the union and negotiate in good faith toward a collective bargaining agreement.

BEST USE OF THE OPEN DOOR POLICY: “Mr. Campbell, there’s something we’d like to discuss…”

“Scott Campbell did not seem too surprised when we all walked in wearing our union t-shirts,” Columbian staff photographer Nathan Howard told the Labor Press. “But he did say that he was disappointed to hear that we were unionizing, and he would not voluntarily recognize us.”

Workers have been talking about unionizing since January, Howard said, and as of today over 70% of the company’s 28-person newsroom are in favor of unionizing. Motives vary, but pay equity is one top concern.

“That’s not just people getting paid more,” Howard said. “It’s transparency about what people are getting paid, and making sure there’s equality. Right now there really isn’t an experience scale. People have been given what you might call secret raises where you’re pulled into a meeting and you get told, ‘We’re going to give you an extra buck an hour but don’t tell anybody.’ Things like that didn’t quite sit right with people.”

Union supporters also hope to improve workplace culture.

WHY WE’RE ORGANIZING: Columbian reporter Patty Hastings wants to see working conditions improve … and would like pay commensurate with her seven years of experience at the paper. (Photo Twitter@PattyHastings)

“I don’t know if you’d call it an official policy, but there’s definitely in our newsroom this attitude of … hire young people who are motivated and excited, work them hard for a couple years, and then not bat an eyelash when they get burned out and leave the industry or leave the newspaper,” Howard said. “I’ve only been with the Columbian a year and a half, and in that time five reporters out of a staff of 28 have left. And all of those people expressed to me that they hated leaving because they love the Vancouver community, but they just couldn’t afford to live on what they were getting paid here.”

In an official statement accompanying the union announcement, union supporters called The Columbian “an increasingly rare example of a thriving independent community news organization,” but said journalists there are overworked and underpaid.

“We intend to bargain for equitable wages, greater diversity in the workplace, reasonable leave and health benefits, earned severance, and a fair and consistent grievance policy,” the statement said.

Founded in 1890, The Columbian has been family-owned since Campbell’s grandfather bought it in 1921. Printing press operators used to belong to the Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU), but decertified in 2003. [The Northwest Labor Press was printed there until then.]

Back in 2011, the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council, the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council, and Northwest Oregon Labor Council waged a boycott of The Columbian, in response to editorials against public employee unions and an overall failure to report on the local labor movement, even on Labor Day. The boycott got owners’ attention. They pledged to improve coverage of organized labor, and followed through. The boycott was lifted.

The new union includes reporters, photographers, copy editors, page designers and editorial assistants. They’ll be part of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, a local of The NewsGuild, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. In Washington, the union represents The Seattle Times, Kitsap Sun, Skagit Valley Herald and Yakima Herald-Republic.

LOCAL LABOR’S ‘2019 BUSINESS OF THE YEAR’ Columbian owners Scott and Jody Campbell, center, received honors at a Sept. 27 ceremony organized by the Labor Roundtable of Southwest Washington. [To their left is fellow awardee Kara Fox-LaRose, general manager of the ilani casino, and flanking them are Labor Roundtable vice chair Dave Letinich and president Ed Barnes, retired IBEW Local 48 business manager.]

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