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The movement to unionize digital journalism jobs that pay poorly, create lots of stress, require long (and odd) hours started with young, upstart web…


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With teachers, graduate students and political campaigners all organizing for humane working conditions these days, unions are having a moment.

And that moment has now spread to another group of stalwart workers who got into their field because of a commitment to public service: journalists.

The movement to unionize digital journalism jobs that pay poorly, create lots of stress, require long (and odd) hours -- plus sometimes bring the threat of bodily harm -- started with young, upstart web publications like Slate, HuffPost, and Vox.

These publications were copying some of the same protections already enjoyed by journalists at such legacy media companies as the Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Journalists at The Los Angeles Times made national headlines when they voted to form a union in January. And editorial staffers at The Chicago Tribune announced in April that they also plan to take the plunge. Both publications fall under the umbrella of Tronc media, which seems even more beleaguered than most newspaper companies these days.

To quote Chicago media columnist Robert Feder, the new Chicago Tribune Guild is "a first in the 171-year history of the traditionally anti-union newspaper."

And direly needed.

According to a letter signed by union organizers at the Tribune, "regular raises, cost-of-living adjustments and job security are non-existent. The cost of our health care benefits has significantly increased. Our maternity and paternity policy is inadequate."

But that's about the reporters, photographers, editors and other staffers. Here's why it matters for the communities they cover:

"[A]lthough we live in a racially and ethnically diverse city and state, diversity is not well-reflected in the newsroom. A more diverse staff will help guide coverage that fully reflects the lives of the many types of communities in and around Chicago. We can do better."

This was notable to me, especially since unions are not always a friend to journalists of color -- who are significantly under-represented in newsrooms across the country and tend to be younger and less experienced than their white peers.

(Full disclosure: This issue sprung to mind because I was among a group of journalists laid off from The Chicago Sun-Times in 2008, due solely to lack of seniority.)

This combination of youth and diversity can be troublesome.

As explained in "A Brief History of Labor, Race and Solidarity," a blog post by the AFL-CIO union federation: "Today, union workers with the most seniority in many companies are still more likely to be white male than of-color and female. In this situation, what happens when layoffs occur? According to the seniority principle, those longest on the job stay. But what if their tenure is longer because others were systematically excluded from the hiring process? Those who were not allowed to compete for work are penalized for not getting into the job earlier. 'Last hired, first fired' means people will be penalized because of society's past history of racial discrimination."

However, according to Laura Rodriguez, a member of the Chicago Tribune Guild's organizing committee, the new collective bargaining unit is being formed with just these sorts of thorny issues in mind.

"One of the main things we're fighting for is inclusivity and being careful about making sure that we not only fight for diversity and equality in our newsrooms, but also balance that with ensuring that those young, new journalists -- including journalists of color -- who we are able to get into the newsroom have the opportunity to work with veteran reporters and editors," said Rodriguez, a multimedia journalist for Hoy, the Chicago Tribune's Spanish-language daily.

"We need the institutional and historical knowledge of veterans to nurture and grow excellent journalists so they can go out into the field and report on any story well, and have those basics down, in addition to knowing the people, the culture, the language and the issues of the people they are covering."

Above all of those considerations -- or perhaps undergirding them -- is the issue of sustaining journalists who are trying to keep accurate and fairly reported information flowing.

"We're not only trying to secure our jobs, but also to secure our democracy," Rodriguez told me.

Regardless of where you fall on the issue of unions, if you care about local reporting, a diverse journalism corps, and making sure the truth prevails in the face of fake news, consider this: National Hug a Newsperson Day has passed, but please think about springing for a paid subscription to your favorite source of reliable news.


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