PHOENIX -- The stage is being set for a vote by reporters at the state's largest newspaper whether to form a union as its parent company is set to be acquired by another firm.
Late Tuesday, Greg Burton, executive editor of the Arizona Republic, refused to recognize a union despite the fact that proponents say they have submitted cards seeking recognition from more than 70 percent of the estimated 100 eligible employees. Burton said the experience of Gannett, which owns the Republic -- and has both unionized and non-union newsrooms -- believes that involvement by the NewsGuild "has not helped these news organizations better serve the interests of our readers.''
NewsGuild representative Stephanie Basile said the next step is for the National Labor Relations Board to schedule an election, something she said should occur in about four weeks. Burton, in a memo to employees, is urging them to reject the union.
Burton declined to comment beyond the memo he already sent to employees.
But it's not just management that doesn't think a union is a good idea.
Some senior reporters have questioned whether things will be worse under a union, with any contract negotiated potentially boosting pay for those at the bottom of the scale while taking back some of the benefits they currently enjoy.
And that internal dispute has turned ugly, with accusations by union foes that organizers are tracking their comings and goings, the people with whom they meet.
Rebekah Sanders, one of the organizers, acknowledged the concern by Burton about maintaining a viable newspaper.
But she said that newsrooms here and elsewhere have taken an "absolute hammering'' in the past decade, slashing staff positions. The result, Sanders said, has been fewer reporters to cover the local news.
More to the point, she said many reporters believe the cuts are unnecessary.
"Journalists are looking at the company they work for and the fact that they are still profitable and executives are still earning huge bonuses and not seeing that trickle down to the journalists who are actually doing the work,'' she said.
At least part of what's driving the issue now appears to be less about current conditions than what the future holds.
It started with what amounted to a hostile takeover of Gannett earlier this year by Digital First Media. Sanders said that company's record is acquiring newspapers "and slashing them to pieces.''
While that effort failed, Gannett subsequently agreed to be acquired by GateHouse Media which owns nearly 150 daily newspapers and more than 684 community publications, including the Arizona Capitol Times. And Sanders said there is a fear that will lead to layoffs.
That. however, leaves the question of what good a union would do.
Sanders said that organized reporters can build public opposition to future efforts to shrink the newsroom.
"We know that executives, we know that investors are sensitive to the public image of the company,'' she said. The message, said Sanders, would be that further cuts help neither the quality of journalism nor the business model.
But there's something else: provide some protections for what could be inevitable cuts.
"At the moment, when there is a layoff, you find out the day that you're let go,'' Sanders said. More to the point, she said severance benefits are "quite small.''
A union, said Sanders, could negotiate advance notice to let people try to find new jobs, as well as provide post-termination health benefits.
Craig Harris, who will have been with the Republic for 25 years in January, acknowledged the string of layoffs. The result, he said, is the newsroom went from about 450 when he started to just around 130 today, with 13 staff reductions alone since 2008.
"Every single one of them sucks,'' Harris said, calling them "devastating'' not only to those let go but to those who remain "because it hurts to see your employees, your colleagues lose their jobs.'' But he said that, as a whole, those let go were offered buy-outs, with severance pay of up to a year's worth of salary plus medical coverage.
Harris, however, said he sees no benefit of organizing.
"We are in an industry that is not anywhere close to being as profitable as it once was,'' he said. And Harris said the fact that Gannett executives may be doing well is largely irrelevant.
"Whether we like it or not, corporate executives are going to make a lot of money,'' he said. "And that's life.''
The issues, however, are more personal for Harris and other senior reporters.
"We've been treated well,'' he said, citing the seven weeks of vacation he gets and a dollar-for-dollar corporate match for all employees on contributions to the company 401(k) retirement plan,
"We have a family leave program, we have an adoption program, we have a tuition reimbursement program,'' Harris said. And he said that, unlike some union shops, employees are on an honor system for the hours they put in, meaning no fixed start time and the ability to take outside gigs like teaching at the journalism school.
And what really concerns him, Harris said, is that a union populated by younger employees could negotiate away those benefits enjoyed by senior staffers in favor of some additional cash for those with less experience.
"There's a real divide,'' he said.
That divide also has become personal.
"They were essentially spying on us,'' Harris said, tracking the comings and goings of he and others who had not signed organizing cards.
Yvonne Wingett Sanchez said she met with union organizers but, after expressing doubts "they started monitoring and logging my movements, as well as my facial expressions during meetings.''
"This is surveillance and it is wrong,'' she said in a Twitter post.
Sanders, for her part, acknowledged that union backers have been monitoring "pushback'' from management and others who are not supporting the organizing effort. That, she said, includes keeping track of individual reactions in group meetings.
"We have taken the temperature of the room to better understand what messages were resonating with people and what messages we need to follow up with them about and to provide them the real facts,'' Sanders said.
"That's just basic Organizing 101,'' she said. "If we were not communicating about those issues, then we would be doing a terrible job and would not be as successful as we are.''
Harris, however, said the activities of union supporters crossed the line.
"The line is, we're family,'' he said. "When you're family you don't do that to each other.''
This isn't the first bid to organize reporters at the paper.
In 1978 there was a 146-115 vote by reporters at both the Republic and its now-defunct afternoon sister paper, the Phoenix Gazette at the time both papers were owned by the Pulliam family. But Jana Bommersbach, who was one of the organizers at that time, said the reporters never were able to get a contract, with interest in the union falling off after management provided pay raises.
"Yes, the Pulliams threw a ton of money at raises and were able to convince people to essentially take that and move on,'' Sanders said. And she said organizers would welcome higher salaries, better treatment of workers and more investment in the newsroom.
"But promises are not as secure as a contract,'' she said.