Ledger building

In an effort that has received national attention, journalists at The Ledger today voted 22-3 to be represented by the News Guild-CWA, Communications Workers of America. The Ledger’s newsroom becomes the first in Florida to affiliate with a union.

“I think this is a historic step for journalists in Florida and I’m confident this is a positive step for Ledger employees,” said Gary White, a reporter who helped organize the newsroom union effort.

“The newsroom staff is committed to preserving quality journalism in Polk County, and we welcome our new role in collaborating with the company to ensure the continued success of our news operation,” he said.

Publisher Kevin Drake’s reaction also focused on maintaining quality journalism. “While we are disappointed by the result, we respect our employees’ right to vote in favor of unionization.  With that being said, we are committed to continuing to produce the highest quality journalism we can,” he said.

Today’s vote, supervised by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board, is the first step toward the News Guild negotiating a contract on behalf of reporters, photographers and copy editors.

Reporters who led the unionization effort said they were seeking a greater say in decisions affecting the future of the newspaper after going eight years without raises during an era when advertising revenues have declined.

The newspaper has faced several rounds of layoffs in recent years as its ownership shifted from The New York Times Co. to Halifax Media Group in 2012 and then to GateHouse Media in 2015. Newsroom staffing has declined from 99 around 2001 to around 30 today.

“Since GateHouse acquired the paper in January 2015 … at least 21 newsroom employees have been laid off, at least six other unfilled positions have been eliminated, and the paper’s Winter Haven bureau, which produces stories for GateHouse’s News Chief newspaper, has gone from four employees to one,” according to a news release issued when the union vote was announced.

A representative of GateHouse’s corporate office in Pittsford, N.Y., came to Lakeland to urge Ledger staffers to vote against union affiliation.

But White said he and the other organizers would not have moved forward if they didn’t think they had a solid majority who wanted to affiliate. Today’s vote needed a simple majority to pass.

When the union drive was announced last month, it surprised Miami labor attorney and former St. Thomas University law school dean Douglas E. Ray. “Even though the law says a company cannot punish you for union activity, people might be more reluctant,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review. “In declining industries, you have to be more brave to do that.”

GateHouse is owned by New Media Investment Group, which is managed by private equity firm Fortress Investment Group, which also owns Florida East Coast Railroad. GateHouse has gone on an acquisition spree during the last two years, and now owns 125 daily newspapers, the most of any chain.

It is known for seeking efficiency through lean operations and centralizing functions such as page design, web development and copy editing. The Ledger’s pages are produced by an editing center in Austin, Tex.

The Ledger isn’t the first paper to unionize after being acquired by GateHouse. Employees at newspapers in Springfield and Rockford, Ill, voted to affiliate with United Media Guild.

Union officials last month sent a letter to New Media Investment Group CEO Michael Reed expressing frustration with a final offer that extends a wage freeze at one of those papers into its 12th year.

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Barry Friedman founded Lkldnow.com in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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