By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
Lawyers representing the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s newsroom union filed charges against the newspaper’s owners with the National Labor Relations Board last week.
The union accuses Adams Publishing Group — a Tennessee-based newspaper giant that in Wyoming owns the Tribune Eagle, Laramie Boomerang, Rawlins Times and Rock Springs Rocket Miner — of violating its labor agreement by reducing the union workers’ hours without bargaining.
Since late March, employees at those newspapers have been limited to 30 paid hours of work per week. Company executives made the reductions as newspapers statewide and nationally lost advertising revenue to pandemic-related economic declines, even as the demand for news increased.
At the Tribune Eagle, members of the Cheyenne News Guild negotiated with the company to set an expiration date for the 30-hour work weeks at the end of July. Securing the expiration date for the union members — which includes the reporters covering the state’s capital city as well as other newsroom employees — was management’s chief concession in the negotiations, two members told WyoFile.
The workers had attempted to negotiate week-long furloughs on a rotating schedule, as employees of other newspapers, like the Lee-Enterprises-owned Casper Star-Tribune did. Such rotating furloughs would better allow the newsroom to cover events in the city, and also allow workers to make up lost income with unemployment insurance, Tom Coulter, the Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter and a co-chair of the Cheyenne News Guild, said.
The company did not budge, but did agree to set a date on when the seven union members could return to working full weeks.
Workers have found themselves ineligible for unemployment insurance, and been unable to make up their lost wages, Coulter said. “It’s been a complete struggle and virtually none of us had success so far,” he said.
WyoFile did not receive a response to a voicemail left with an APG human resources executive or to a voicemail and email to Rory Palm, APG’s regional president in Wyoming.
On July 31, management told the newsroom they would be returning to 40-hour weeks on Aug. 1. But five days later, on Aug. 5, APG reneged on the deal, according to a press release issued on Twitter by the News Guild. The company told employees they would be at 30-hour work weeks until “at least September,” at which point they might move to 35 hour workweeks, according to the press release.
The union contends the decision, which was made without renegotiating with the union, was illegal.
“The Employer failed and refused to bargain in good faith with the union as the collective bargaining representative of its employees by making unilateral changes in terms and conditions of employment,” the charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board on Aug. 6 read.
The union’s lawyers are also accusing APG of dealing directly with union employees and not with union representation. The workers were given short notice of an “impromptu conference call,” the union wrote in its press release, and had to scramble to get their union representative onto the call.
The NLRB is a federal agency tasked with protecting employees’ rights. The agency can take a number of steps with a credible charge of unfair labor practices, including seeking an injunction against a company from a judge, dismissing the charge or advancing it to an administrative trial.
Company management can cite “economic exigency” to avoid negotiating a change in working conditions with a union. However, months into a pandemic that appears to have lasting and fundamental impacts to the U.S. economy, journalists in Cheyenne now want the company to open its books to union workers and prove its exigency.
“It’s not unforeseen anymore,” reporter Isabella Alves said. “This has been going on for months now.” Alves is the other co-chair of the Cheyenne News Guild and covers criminal justice for the newspaper.
“Some communication on what the company looks like compared to other publishers would be really helpful,” Coulter said.
In Casper, Lee Enterprise’s employees are again working full weeks. The company has not furloughed its union workers since the end of June, Casper News Guild chairperson Seth Klamann told WyoFile. Members of his union were mostly able to secure unemployment insurance to make up for the pay lost in their week-long furloughs, he said.
That newspaper recently announced a reduction in its print product. The newspaper will no longer print on Mondays and Tuesdays.
At APG’s other newspapers in Wyoming, which are not unionized, 30-hour weeks have continued without interruption. The shortened work weeks have inhibited news gathering and made paying bills a challenge for already low-paid reporters, journalists in several of those newsrooms told WyoFile this week.
Coulter cited a litany of pressing issues — from steep state budget cuts to schools’ reopening amid a pandemic to primary elections this month — that demand comprehensive reporting. “It’s an unbelievably important moment for Wyoming that [APG] just has no interest in helping us with,” he said.
APG owns 37 daily newspapers and 90 non-daily newspapers across 20 states, according to its website. A 2017 report by Poynter Media estimated the worth of the Adams family, which owns the company, at more than $1 billion. The company began buying newspapers in 2014, Poynter reported. The family owns vineyards in France and California and one Adams family member gave $100 million to the Yale School of Music in 2005, according to the article.
In an Aug. 4 letter to employees, APG CEO Mark Adams did not provide any indication as to when the curtailed hours might end.
The company has been “focused on initiatives to identify new revenue streams and reduce operating expenses,” Adams wrote. Adams described the decision to shorten hours as an attempt to keep more employees on the payroll and receiving job benefits.
“I understand and appreciate the personal challenges that these decisions may have created for you,” he wrote. “My intent was to help protect our company and avoid unrecoverable financial damage while keeping our Associates on company payroll and eligible for health care.”
Adams also offered a $1,500 one-time payment to any employee who chose to make the 30-hour schedule permanent. APG workers have until Aug. 14 to decide.