Newsroom employees at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are withholding their names from the articles they write and the news products they produce in the latest salvo in an increasingly contentious round of contract talks between their labor union and the paper’s owners.
The byline strike began at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, more than a week after an unfair labor complaint was filed by The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union representing about 150 newsroom employees. The Guild alleges that the paper’s owners, Toledo, Ohio-based Block Communications, Inc., are violating labor laws by refusing to foot the bill for an increase in employee health care contributions.
Michael A. Fuoco, a Post-Gazette enterprise reporter and president of The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said all newsroom members are participating and that the strike would continue for an “undetermined amount of time.”
“[This] byline strike is solely focused on the unconscionable way we have been treated over the last 12 years as BCI has raked in annual profits north of $100 million and how over the last 10 months they have asked for even more absurd concessions,” Fuoco said.
The Guild says newsroom employees haven’t seen a pay raise in more than 12 years, and during that time, saw their wages cut by 12 percent for nine years and 10 percent for the past three years. Its most recent contract expired March 31, and the Guild says it’s been “in some of the most contentious contract talks at the paper in history,” for 10 months. A press release from the Guild continued:
While the Guild typically keeps negotiations confidential, BCI’s refusal to move off its draconian proposal has forced us to go public. Among the many lowlights in BCI’s proposal:
• Allowing the company the unilateral right to determine the number of hours in a Guild member’s work week, meaning it could be none (all members are currently guaranteed 40 hours a week).
• The unfettered right to use freelancers, managers and third-party vendors to perform work over which Guild members have had jurisdiction for more than 80 years.
• The ability to lay off anyone for any reason at any time and out of seniority (currently, there needs to be an economic reason; the company must meet with the Guild to try to find an alternative; and any layoffs must be by seniority in work categories).
• The ability to unilaterally change health-care benefits at any time (currently, any changes must be negotiated).
The byline strike applies not only to articles printed in the paper, but also videos, photographs and articles that appear on the Post-Gazette’s website. Newsroom employees without a byline, such as copy editors and designers, are wearing stickers reading, “I support the byline strike.” Fuoco said he’s told it represents the first byline strike at the paper since one in 1981 touched off by the disciplining of a reporter. The Guild was formed in 1934.
“To my knowledge, this is only the second time that we’ve done such a mobilization and that shows how extraordinary this is,” he added.
According to the Guild, the strike is not in response to the PG’s controversial editorial, “Reason as racism,” that appeared in the paper on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, setting off a firestorm of criticism from readers, local foundations and former and current PG employees. A handful of Post-Gazette employees had already withheld their bylines in response to the editorial.
Guild members may withhold bylines per their contract with the Post-Gazette.
“It’s our right to withhold our byline, our likeness and our initials, and people have invoked that right,” Fuoco said. “It’s not a privilege, it’s a right covered under our contract, which says we have the right to withhold our bylines at our request, which by the way, in [BCI’s] current contract proposal, they want to eliminate.”
John R. Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade, has not responded to repeated requests for comment, and it’s unclear how Block Communications, Inc. will respond to the current byline strike.
At The (Toledo) Blade, which is also owned by BCI, Nolan Rosenkrans, a reporter and the local Newspaper Guild chapter president, tweeted that John R. Block responded to a byline strike there by “banning all bylines for about two years, hampering young journalists’ chance to build clip files for other jobs.”
Fuoco said he could not speak to that issue.
Like most American newspapers, the Post-Gazette has struggled financially in the transition to journalism’s digital age. In recent years, the paper has been the scene of large-scale layoffs amid falling revenues, the same that have hit similarly prominent newsrooms nationwide.
The Post-Gazette’s owners were even summoned into court this week in a lawsuit centering on a trust fund belonging to the descendants of late Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife. The defendants in that case argue that funds from the trust used to offset Tribune-Review losses were not misspent but rather on par with those expended by similar companies and outlets. The Post-Gazette’s attorneys had asked the court to quash the subpoena.
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh argues that while the paper’s owners have lost money at both the Post-Gazette and Blade, Block Communications, Inc. is still reaping massive profits elsewhere. Nashville-based law firm King & Ballow is representing the company in negotiations.
The byline strike also comes amid rising journalistic tensions between John R. Block and the Post-Gazette newsroom union.
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh joined the chorus of critics in submitting a scorching and rare letter to the editor that John R. Block refused to put in the paper. The paper did print critical letters to the editor about the editorial — and at least one in support of it — that were submitted by readers. The paper also ran an editorial from John R. Block’s own family and friends decrying the “Reason as racism” piece that ran at his behest. (John R. Block is head of the editorial boards of both the Post-Gazette and the Blade and has final say over the content that appears in the editorial pages of both papers and under the bylines of their editorial boards.)
Earlier this month, the Post-Gazette’s verified Twitter account announced that John R. Block requested that the word “shithole” be removed from the first sentence of a story about Trump using the word to refer to African countries and Haiti.
The word appeared in the first sentence of articles published on the paper’s website the following day, but not in the first sentence of an article in the hard copy edition that arrived on newsstands Jan. 12.
In a firsthand account of the “Reason as racism” fallout published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Fuoco addressed the Twitter flap, saying the Guild actively defended a member who, “in the interest of journalistic ethics and transparency, had […] alerted the public on the Post-Gazette’s Twitter account” to John R. Block’s request.
During the 2016 presidential election, newsroom concerns about John R. Block’s purported affinity for now-President Donald Trump were stoked with talk of a possible Post-Gazette endorsement of the candidate. The endorsement never happened. Instead, the paper ran a comparison of Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that some criticized as a “pseudo-Trump endorsement.”
John R. Block was also pictured on Trump’s private jet during the 2016 presidential race. A spokesperson defended the photo opp, telling City Paper that he had been photographed “with many people” over the course of his career, including Hillary Clinton.