Unannounced staff cuts prompted organizing drive
By CARL GREEN
Carbondale, IL – Newsroom staff members at the Southern Illinoisan newspaper have voted unanimously to join the United Media Guild. The vote was 12-0.
The Media Guild also represents staff at the St. Louis-Post Dispatch and the Labor Tribune, among others, and is part of the NewsGuild-Communiations Workers of America.
Staff at the Southern Illinoisan began organizing earlier this year following unannounced layoffs in January that cut 18 percent of the newspaper’s workforce, including three newsroom employees.
The newspaper is owned by Lee Enterprises, which also owns the Post-Dispatch. Staff at two other Lee papers, the Independent in Missoula, MN, and the Star-Tribune in Casper, WY, recently formed unions. Contract negotiations at the Southern Illinoisan are expected to begin in the coming weeks.
“Today is a big win for local journalism,” said Todd Hefferman, a sports writer. “The Southern Illinoisan has provided a voice for the region for over 100 years, but I’m deeply concerned with the direction of the newspaper under the Lee Enterprises business model.
“Negotiating a good contract will help us continue to be a watchdog for the region and produce the quality journalism Southern Illinois demands from us.”
The Southern Illinoisan covers news in a 16-county area. News staff said the cutbacks have made it difficult to serve that large of a region.
“We believe those losses went beyond the obvious human impact,” said Greg Keller, a copy editor. “Cuts to local journalism run counter to our mission statement of being a force for positive change in the communities we serve.”
The Carbondale organizers credited AFSCME Council 31, Laborers Local 773, the Southern Illinois Central Labor Council and newsroom organizers from Chicago, Los Angeles, Casper and Missoula with helping during the process.
Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch congratulated the workers on their determination.
“The Southern Illinoisan plays a vital role in chronicling developments of importance to those who live and work in southern Illinois,” she said. “As with any enterprise, its greatest resource is the employees who make it happen. You deserve respect and fair treatment. Congratulations on taking the surest path to assuring such treatment by coming together to form a union.”
United Media Guild also represents four other Illinois newspapers, the State Journal-Register in Springfield, the Pekin Daily Times, the Peoria Journal-Star and the Rockford Register Star.
Guild President Jeff Gordon, a sportswriter at the Post-Dispatch, welcomed the Southern Illinoisan staff into the fold.
“We are thrilled the newsroom at the Southern voted to join the Guild and our fight to preserve quality journalism,” Gordon said, “We are eager to negotiate a first contract and build a constructive relationship with Lee Enterprises, just as we have here at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.”
FIGHTING TO PRESERVE QUALITY JOURNALISM
The Southern Illinoisan organizing committee issued a mission statement prior to the vote, which said, in part:
“Our mission is to help safeguard the future of The Southern Illinoisan by having a voice in preserving jobs and quality journalism.
“The Southern Illinoisan is an essential provider of news, sports and advertising throughout the region. We take pride in our newspaper and its nearly 125-year history, striving every day to serve our communities and our readers.
“However, the newspaper industry is changing. More and more owners – such as Lee Enterprises, which owns The Southern Illinoisan – are making decisions based solely on the bottom line. They are siphoning away profits instead of investing in local news, sending those profits to corporate offices to reward top executives for stripping down the newspapers that mean so much to their communities.
“We, the employees, need a more formal voice in the workplace to counteract that corporate mentality and to help ensure that The Southern Illinoisan remains strong going forward….
“Years of health-insurance premium increases without pay raises have resulted in the loss of talented staff members, depriving readers of their institutional knowledge and expertise about the region. For those who remain, repeated layoffs have further destabilized the newsroom, making it difficult for The Southern Illinoisan to fulfill its watchdog function and provide in-depth coverage. Staff reductions have had a direct effect on the amount of quality journalism we are able to produce, the extent of our coverage area, and even the distribution of our print edition.
“Joining the Guild is a crucial step toward being better advocates for ourselves, and, in turn, our readers. With a union and a good labor contract, we can institute more fairness and democracy in our workplace to help ensure stability.
“Our goal is the long-term success of The Southern Illinoisan. We look forward to working with our local management in achieving that goal.”