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'Pittsburgh Post-Gazette' journalists go on strike

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

Journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette walked off the job this past week in solidarity with non-news colleagues and in protest of working without a contract for five years. It's the first newspaper strike in the U.S. in more than two decades. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports there is much more at stake, and he joins us now.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Cheryl.

THOMPSON: Hey, David. Welcome. So tell us, what's playing out now? What is this all about?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think it's, you know, the culmination of years of frustration, as you suggest. You know, working without a contract since 2017 being negotiating has been a real pressure point. And you've seen other units of the paper on strike. Now the journalists, which is the largest union unit at the Post-Gazette, joining them - 101 members of that unit. And you're seeing real picketing. They went this weekend to picket the home of one of the twin brothers who has the controlling ownership of the papers, John Block, outside Pittsburgh. They're putting out a strike newspaper. It's called the Pittsburgh Union Progress. You haven't really seen one of those in decades either. And there's an effort to kind of gin up community pressure on the newspaper's ownership, the Block brothers, to reach a real contract for the newsroom but also for the other units.

THOMPSON: Yeah, because the strike actually started earlier this month now, when the pressmen and the drivers and others went on strike. And so now the newsroom's on strike.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right.

THOMPSON: They're joining with them.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I mean, to be honest, if you look at what's at stake here, you know, there were negotiations that broke down in 2020. And at a certain point, the ownership this fall put in place working conditions that include taking off some of the non-newsroom units away from all of their health care benefits. The Block brothers have taken, in some ways, an aggressively anti-union stance. They declared an impasse in 2020, saying that there could be no more constructive negotiations. The union contradicts that and says that's not true. But you have seen put in place, as well, for the newsroom a contract that slashed health care benefits, forced unpaid days on workers. At this point, looking at what their brethren outside the newsroom are facing, they say, we've got to be in solidarity, but also, this could come for us as well.

THOMPSON: You know, the irony of an anti-union stance in what's historically been a union town.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, but the Block brothers, both in terms of pointing to the finances of print journalism more generally, saying, look, it's tenuous, we have to get those in line - and also, you know, John Block has publicly identified strongly as - sort of in the MAGA pro-former President Donald Trump quarter, has taken a pretty clear anti-union position in a variety of ways at that newspaper. Therefore, Pittsburgh's identity and its sense of self from the old days in, you know, steel manufacturing is not really part of that equation for him.

THOMPSON: So how did it get to this point, David? How did we get here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you're seeing these years of roiling tensions really just explode into the open. What's interesting in some ways is that there's anxieties about this, and that is that the newsroom did not vote overwhelmingly to do this. I believe it was a 38-to-36 vote, just north of 50-50. Some more members of the newsroom have decided to go on strike in the days since - just in the few days since it was declared. But it's controversial, and I'll tell you why.

This was the first full newspaper strike in 21 years. The last strike was in Seattle, which was kind of a wash. It didn't really work out well for ownership or for workers. And before that, the last strike was in Pittsburgh, three decades ago, the early 1990s, and that was seen as really the low point for the strength of unions in the newspapering business. The Pittsburgh Press, often forgotten by people outside Pennsylvania, was never published again. It was owned by Scripps-Howard and sold to the Blocks, who shut it down so that they could make The Post-Gazette the dominant paper in town.

And so you thought at that point - when I was a newspaper reporter and a member of a union back then, you thought, you know, this is really going to be the waning days of newspaper unions. But instead, you've seen this real distinct dynamic, particularly in the past five years, where newspaper unions and, for that matter, digital media unions have surged and soared. It's particularly because financial conditions have pinched journalists. And reporters are worrying more about standards, and you've seen them at publications across the country that never welcome them for it - The LA Times, Vox and BuzzFeed and, for that matter, inside public radio, throughout the system.

THOMPSON: You know, newspaper strikes are rare - right? - 30 years in Pittsburgh, 21 years before that. And what does it say about the effectiveness of newspaper strikes and newspaper unions?

FOLKENFLIK: I think we don't know. I think this will be an incredible test case for that, in part because we have not seen strikes in so many years, in part because you saw such a nadir of support - public support for unions, and particularly newspaper unions. And yet in recent years, as economic anxiety and stresses have raged, you've seen, you know, the huge global financial crisis and now more recently, the one triggered by the pandemic. I think people are open to the idea that they need to act collectively in a way that perhaps they didn't.

THOMPSON: So what's ahead, David?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the National Labor Relations Board agreed with the NewsGuild that the Blocks acted in bad faith in declaring an impasse and imposing their own will. And so that's been heard by an administrative judge. And we're going to see what the result of that ruling is - whether the judge agrees. You know, the Blocks are arguing that they weren't able to reach a resolution, and at a certain point, they have to impose some sort of conditions. You know, the strike paper is a way to both remind the public that the reporters are around and can provide news - both on the strike itself, presumably about other issues. And it could be a way to show the Blocks there may be room for a digital, nimble competitor in town to erode their standing if they're not able to cut it down, you know, more immediately by resolving the strike.

By hobbling the paper, the union hopes civic leaders will pressure the Blocks to return to negotiations. And, you know, I think you have two very intransigent sides right now. You've got the Blocks seeing no reason to appease their unions and journalists thinking, you know, this is a time where we have to prove that collectively - that we have much more power than people think. They are arguing they want to protect not just their paychecks, but professional standards. That all is at stake in Pittsburgh, and we're going to see how that plays out.

THOMPSON: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.