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Update: Journalists at the Arizona Republic voted to unionize their newsroom on Oct. 10. Once the National Labor Revisions Board certifies the results of the 64-30 vote, the newly formed union will begin engaging in negotiations with Gannett.

Allegations of organized surveillance, interrogations, and confiscations of cell phones were once confined to Hollywood movies and intelligence agencies, but in 2019, they’re taking place right here in Arizona, at the state’s largest newspaper.

Staffers at the Arizona Republic announced they intended to form a union last month, sparking an ugly battle between the paper’s journalists and corporate executives at Gannett, which owns the paper and is finalizing a merger with GateHouse Media.

The resulting merger will create the largest newspaper conglomerate in the U.S. and corporate executives from both companies are expected to profit, but investors have nonetheless pressured to Gannett and GateHouse to find an estimated $300 million in annual cost savings as part of the $1.4 billion merger, the Washington Post reported.

That has raised concern among Arizona Republic staffers that their newsroom, which has already seen its editorial staff slashed by 70% since 2007, would face further job cuts. 

Faced with the possibility of more layoffs, a near-weekly occurrence in the media world, staffers at the Arizona Republic decided to make a push for unionization. 

Staffers organized under the banner of the Arizona Republic Guild and signed union authorization cards stating their desire to be voluntarily recognized or hold an election to join The NewsGuild-CWA.

They also wrote a mission statement explaining why they want a union.

“The company’s merger with GateHouse Media likely means deeper cuts,” the mission statement reads. “Annual layoffs, stagnant salaries, swelling healthcare costs and high turnover weaken local journalism. Our newsroom needs a large, diverse staff to tell the stories of our community. Our newsroom needs a seat at the table.”

While Gannett had the option of voluntarily recognizing the union, the company, with allies inside the Republic, balked at the unionization attempt. As a result, Republic staffers will hold a formal vote on whether to unionize on Thursday, Oct. 10. Pro-union organizers appear to be in strong shape, having submitted authorization cards seeking an election from more than 70% of those eligible to vote. 

Thursday’s election comes after a months-long process; the Phoenix New Times reported that staffers began discussing the unionization effort in January, but executives learned of the effort in June and tried to convince employees not to unionize.

Union organizers say Gannett and Republic management have held three all-hands-on-deck meetings with the newsroom and multiple one-on-one meetings to discourage workers from unionizing. 

The company’s anti-union forces stepped up their efforts in late August, when Arizona Republic Executive Editor Greg Burton sent a newsroom-wide email accusing organizers of “surveilling colleagues” and “spying” on those who opposed unionization. He also compared union supporters to “crackpots and criminals,” saying it was child molesters, murders, and mobsters who surveilled journalists

“Journalists don’t surveil other journalists,” Burton wrote. 

After Burton’s email became public, reporters Craig Harris and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez claimed on Twitter that they were the subject of “surveillance” by union supporters.

“They used an app to document via text messages the real-time movements of me and my colleagues who had reservations about the union effort,” Harris wrote on Twitter. He said he had seen the chats in question.

Veteran Republic reporter Rebekah Sanders and other union organizers denied they surveilled anyone, saying the alleged “surveillance” centered on text messages sent through Signal, an encrypted messaging app often used by journalists to discuss sensitive matters.

Organizers used the app to discuss union activity and documented in the chat when skeptical employees, like Harris, invited other colleagues to discuss the union effort outside of the office. The pro-union staffers say they were simply implementing the common union practice of gauging support for their effort. 

Things escalated on Sept. 3, when a Gannett representative reportedly interrogated Sanders about her “unionizing activity” and confiscated her work phone. 

“I asked how I would conduct interviews the rest of the day. She said, ‘You won’t.’ I asked when I could have it back,” Sanders wrote in a public Facebook post. “She said she would let me know. My work cell has all of my contacts and is an integral part of my job.”

This is why my colleagues and I are organizing at the Arizona Republic.Today I was interrogated by a Gannett HR rep…

Posted by Rebekah Sanders on Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Sanders described Burton’s message as a union-busting effort and said she and her colleagues were fighting for “a voice in the decisions being made about our future.”

She also laid the blame at the feet of investors and Gannett executives. “Arizona Republic editors have the same goal as employees: to produce strong local journalism,” Sanders told the Washington Post. “But the pressures from corporate executives and Wall Street continue to lead to cuts, cuts and more cuts.”

In recent days, Republic management has again ramped up its anti-union efforts, warning staffers in a memo that voting to unionize could actually cost them some of their benefits

“Bargaining remains a two-way street,” reads the memo. “The company can make demands for concessions as well.”

The memo — which doesn’t list an author — also warns that those who might consider supporting the union could be sold out by the leaders of the movement who are “going to have the loudest voice.”

“Do you trust them with your future — because if you vote for the Guild, that is what you’ll be doing,” the memo reads.

Richard Ruelas, a pro-union leader, dismissed the company’s argument that contract negotiations could lead to worse benefits and make things worse than they are now, or would be post merger. 

Ruelas also said that even if employees trust Gannett and current Republic management, that doesn’t ensure protections or security should there be layoffs.

“Who knows who’s going to be able to make the decision in a few months, if it’s these same executives or a new batch,” Ruelas told Capitol Media Services. “Right now we are naked to whatever that risk is,” he said. “This would provide a modicum of protection.”

Organizers expect layoffs post-merger and that fear is one of the main factors driving their effort — they want to organize to get protections in writing.

They point to the Detroit Free Press, a unionized Gannett paper, which earned 10 days of severance for each year of service, with a maximum of 40 weeks.

That is a stark difference from severance packages at non-union Gannett papers, which is 5 days for each year worked with a 26-week maximum, according to the Republic’s pro-union organizers.

Their fears and desire for protections are well founded — more than 7,200 employees in the media sector have lost their jobs in 2019, according to Business Insider. That mirrors the decade-long trend that has seen newsrooms across the country eviscerated; from 2008 to 2018, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 25%, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

The numbers are even worse for newspaper newsrooms, which saw their number of employees plummet from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to just 38,000 in 2018, a drop of 47%.

The consequences of these layoffs go far beyond the newsroom too. According to U.S. News Deserts, a project from the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism, local newspapers have been described as watchdogs that hold our civic institutions accountable and “furnish that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide.” 

U.S. News Deserts found that the loss of local reporting harms communities, erodes civic engagement, makes it more likely that corruption goes unchecked, and ultimately, threatens democracy.

Arizona has seen a 25% decrease in its number of newspapers and a 37% decrease in circulation since 2004, according to US News Deserts.

The Arizona Republic has hung on and remains the paper of record in the state, despite losing most of its newsroom in that time.

The Republic’s pro-union forces believe a union is necessary to protect the future of the paper and its reporters, and on Thursday, they will find out whether a majority of the paper’s 100-plus employees agree. 

Should Republic staffers decide to form a union, they will join more than 30 other newsrooms that have unionized in recent years and begin working with Gannett to negotiate a labor contract.