By Don McIntosh
Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild announced Sept. 7 that it’s done with The Columbian. The paper’s management had said most remaining news room workers no longer want to be union-represented, and the union did a quick count and agreed. Since October 2019—when the workers voted 19-8 to unionize—most union supporters have been laid off or quit, and the newsroom has shrunk from 28 employees to 13.
Workers never got a union contract, despite more than 15 months of bargaining. Guild representative Katie Gillespie, a former Columbian reporter herself, says it became clear The Columbian never intended to reach agreement.
“They’ve been surface bargaining from the time we first sat at the table,” Gillespie told the Labor Press. Surface bargaining is labor law parlance for going through the motions—meeting, but never meaningfully negotiating. That’s illegal under federal labor law because it violates the law’s requirement that an employer bargain in good faith, which means negotiating with the intent of reaching agreement. Even though the union no longer represents the group, an open investigation continues by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) into whether The Columbian broke the law in this case.
The Columbian pays reporters as little as $17 an hour. Workers unionized in the first place hoping to win a more equitable and transparent pay system, and one that makes it possible to stick around and gain experience reporting on Vancouver and Southwest Washington. But the paper was determined not to give ground.
For 15 months the union bargaining team met monthly for at least six hours with top management and outside attorney Michael Zinser of Nashville. Some sessions lasted two days, eight hours a day, Gillespie said. And in all that time, The Columbian never offered any improvement, not even a cost of living increase. It also rejected every union proposal, no matter how small, even a proposal for a union bulletin board. One exception: After rejecting union proposals to improve the company’s paid time off policy for holidays, The Columbian unilaterally announced a similar improvement—for nonunion employees. The union objected, at which point the company made the improvement for union-represented employees too.
“If they had any respect for the collective bargaining pro-cess at all, they would have made counter proposals,” Gillespie said, “instead of just telling us that the status quo was good enough.”
The Columbian has been owned by the Campbell family since Herbert Campbell bought it in 1921. Its current publisher Ben Campbell is his great-grandson. By email, he said he wouldn’t be available to answer questions, and instead emailed an unsigned statement on Columbian letterhead that characterized Guild economic proposals as unrealistic. [The union proposed $20 an hour.] The statement also faulted the union for refusing to present its entire contract proposal at once (something pretty rare in union bargaining, and which The Columbian didn’t do either.
With over 140 hours of lawyer time just at the bargaining table—plus prep time and travel time and expenses before the pandemic shifted bargaining online—The Columbian likely spent over $150,000 just to say no to the union proposals.
With so many supporters gone, and no contract to show for all the effort, the union felt it was time to call it quits.
“This wasn’t a decision we made lightly,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie said the experience with The Columbian speaks to the need for the PRO Act, a proposed labor law reform that passed the U.S. House but is stalled in the U.S. Senate. Under the PRO Act, surface bargaining wouldn’t pay off because if two sides failed to reach agreement on a first union contract, it would be decided on by an arbitrator.
“It hurts. We put a lot of work into this,” said union bargaining team member Lyndsey Hewitt, who quit her job as a reporter at The Columbian the week the union ended. “I wish that management and the Campbells would have been a little more willing to work with workers.”
DID YOU KNOW: Printing press operators at the paper were once represented by GCIU, and the Northwest Labor Press was printed there … until they voted to decertify the union in 2002.