Re Journal Sentinel's "right to work" newsroom, Media Trackers runs off the rails

Media Trackers, a conservative web site that is a self-styled critic of the supposedly liberal mainstream (or, if you're a Palin fan, "lamestream")  news media, is thumping its chest again over the fact that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's newsroom is (gasp!) not only unionized, but that it already is (double-gasp!) a "right-to-work" shop. Indeed, say the Trackers, fully 38 percent of the JS employees eligible for union membership (triple-gasp!) have opted out of membership. Let's review just how overinflated these revelations truly are.

The Media Trackers self-styled expose seems intent on demonstrating that right-to-work laws serve a purpose while revealing hypocrisy at the Journal Sentinel, which has editorialized against the current Republican Party blitzkrieg to create a statewide "right-to-work" law affecting private-sector labor unions. But as we've seen in the case of many past Media Trackers reports, this expose is pretty badly skewed, and you don't even need to like the Journal Sentinel to see why.

Let's go through some statements from the Media Trackers report and rip them apart, one by one:

"According to union data recently reported to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Milwaukee Newspaper Guild – the union representing many newsroom employees of Wisconsin’s largest newspaper – may be the poster child of what happens when employees find no value in a labor union."


"May be" turns out to be way overstated, especially when it comes under this Media Trackers headline:

40% of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Newsroom Enjoys Right to Work

Ignoring the value judgement that this percentage (actually it's 100 perent of the newsroom, if no one chose to contribute to the union's costs)  "enjoy" right to work, let's focus on how Media Trackers didn't bother updating that factually erroneous headline when it found out otherwise. The web site added an update, buried at the bottom of its report, essentially pointing out that the 38 percent claim (itself conflated to 40 percent in that headline) is wrong. We've helpfully condensed three passages from varous sections of the report, top to bottom, to show you the uncorrected progression:


"By the [Newspaper] Guild’s own claims, they are the bargaining unit for more than 130 employees in the newspaper’s newsroom. ...  However, according to Guild documents submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor just weeks ago, the Guild’s membership between October 2013 and August 2014 sat at just 81. By that count, at least 38% of the newsroom’s staff has opted out of the union ... . While the Guild’s website claims their union’s bargaining unit is over 130 newsroom employees, a blog post from less than an hour before this Media Trackers report quotes Guild president Tom Silverstein as saying the Guild’s bargaining unit currently sits at 105."

Hmmm: 81 union members out of a possible 105. That's actually a 77 percent sign-up rate. Doesn't sound like the union is being shunned, for the most part, now, does it? I can just hear the Media Trackers brain trust considering this:  We'd better edit that headline. Nah, it's too much of a grabber as is. Let's keep that and just stick a contradictory paragraph in way at the bottom of the report, instead.

You know, Scott Walker thinks his winning a second term with a bit more than half the votes of roughly half of all eligible voters who actually turned out constitutes a sweeping mandate of about a fourth of everyone. But a union that signs up 77 percent of potential members despite strident management opposition? In the Media Trackers alternate universe, that "may be" a big example of union disfavor!

Media Trackers can play around with the numbers but here's the true, underlying meaning it originally missed: The ranks of Journal Sentinel employees eligible to be in the Newspaper Guild bargaining unit are shrinking because, like many newspapers, the JS has been cutting editorial staff for years, thanks mainly to declining ad revenue. But when a business with a union shop shrinks, outfits like Media Trackers start up again focusing on  just the shrinking unions. They must be out of favor! More like out of work.

Corrected numbers aside, the truly amazing aspect of this, which Media Trackers missed altogether, is that journalists are notorious individualists, loners, skeptics and iconoclasts, who tend to shy from belonging to most groups of any kind. In which context, the JS newsroom's Guild membership is surprisngly, impressively high.

"Poster child," eh.

Nor does Media Trackers make allowances for other factors that are involved. When, for example, wages or layoffs or management threats to out-source work loom (which in too many shops often but by apparent sheer coincidence seem to occur just around contract negotiation time), unions are further pressured to give concessions and find it harder to bargain for improvements in working conditions, much less compensation. Is that a factor in whatever rank-and-file disaffection with unions there may be? Yeah, but it's driven by management, not the unions.

Such management finagling is actually illegal, a form of unfair labor practice under U.S. law. For many years, the National Labor Relations Board was an effective agency that stepped in promptly whenever management and organized labor didn't see eye to eye. Rather than relay on walk-outs as their only weapon in the event of a bargaining break-down, unions could instead file unfair labor practice complaints with the NLRB, as for instance when management threatened workers, dragged its heels on bargaining, or insisted on a stance that amounted to, "This is our first and last offer, and it's non-negotiable, take or leave it." That's illegal, too.

However, management often could get away with such obviously anti-union strategies because under years of Republican control and GOP presidential appointments, the NLRB strangely lost its eagerness to pursue many labor disputes or even promptly review union complaints. Only very recently, since President Obama restored a Democratic majority on the board, has the NLRB begun to show some actual concern for management transgressions.

As with many other social institutions, Republican politicians and conservative interest groups have worked hard to weaken public institutions and deny them resources to carry out their mandate; then, when those institutions couldn't deliver on their mission, they were attacked and weakened some more as punishment for their GOP-induced failures. The Postal Service, the IRS, the NLRB and more agencies have been treated to this game.

Indeed, right now, U.S. Senate Republicans are trying to claw back a NLRB move to speed up union elections, which some intransigent businesses have spent years making tedious and expensive -- just like Scott Walker already has made it tedious and expensive to run most public employee unions in this state.

Right-to-work laws are another example of this weakening influence. When unions are not allowed to bargain fairly, with the full protection of the law at their backs, they more often fail to deliver the goods. Then outfits like Media Trackers come along and blame the unions for the conservative-inspired tinkering that led to that weakening, or point to declining membership as proof no one likes unions. Blaming the victim is so much easier, and even profitable.

Media Trackers, again:  "Last year Media Trackers first reported the Guild’s contract with Journal Sentinel, Inc – the corporate name for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper – had Right to Work language allowing newsroom employees to opt out of being members of the union. While the Guild is still the “sole and exclusive bargaining agent” for most newsroom employees, the contract also includes Right to Work language."

Yeah, well, here's the thing. Right now there's no right-to-work law in the state. Nor does any labor union of which I'm aware favor a right-to-work mandate. That's something some businesses very much want, however, because they're anti-union or at least in favor of weak unions, and they know right-to-work tends to weaken unions by denying them resources. Divide and conquer.

Remember: Federal law requires unions to represent everyone, even non-union employees who are in their bargaining unit. Instigate right-to-work and -- human nature being what it is -- a certain percentage of employees will immediately stop paying union dues, if they don't have to. Yet those freeloaders still get to enjoy  all the benefits negotiated by the union. Gee, I thought Republicans were the party that thinks people shouldn't get something for nothing.

Although conservatives and Republicans work hard to fuzz this up, unions only get things they want by negotiating them, which is a give-and-take process. [Republicans, of course, increasingly don't believe in compromise.] To get a desired wage increase, for example, Wisconsin's private-sector unions have on occasion been forced to agree to give up something else they treasure -- the right to collect dues from potential freeloaders in the bargaining unit, for example.

Where right-to-work is a key management principle, it's sometimes hard for a union, especially a small local, to avoid that in a contract. Of course, after Wisconsin Republicans instigate statewide right-to-work provisions, it will become even harder.

Summing up, what is the intent behind this Media Trackers piece? Two things it seems to want to get you to believe:

One: Its "discovery" that 38 percent of journalists eligible for union membership in the JS newsroom opted out. Not even close.

Two: Its weasel-worded intimation that Journal Sentinel management is hypocritical for letting editors rail against the pending, Republican right-to-work law in the state legislature while insisting upon the same within their shop. Except editors likely had nothing to do with bargaining the contract. That's the doman of the suits upstairs, and their legal team.

And notice a big, unstated difference: If a private union and a private business negotiate a private contract that, for one reason or another, includes a right-to-work provision, that's entirely different from a state government that mandates such provisions in every single instance, whether the business or the union wants that.

Let's go back to what Media Trackers sees as the rationale for its overinflated "reporting" on reporting:

"The revelation comes as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial board has called a Wisconsin legislative push to give all Wisconsin workers the Right to Work, “…about the use of raw political power to defeat a political opponent.” Interestingly, according to the Guild’s 2012-2014 contract, the newspaper’s management, including the managing editor and editorial page editor, are not part of the bargained contract and likely benefit from the 40% of newsroom employees that take advantage of the contract’s Right to Work language."

More silliness! Managers are by definition ineligible for union membership. How do the JS newsroom managers "benefit" from those other, eligible newsroom employees who opt out of membership? They don't, not individually. However, their company might.

Let's just make something clear again, here, for Media Trackers, Mitt Romney and the U.S. Supreme Court alike: Corporations are not people. Corporations that can get rid of their unions or take advantage of right-to-work language certainly might reduce their labor costs and thus perhaps increase profits, but only by screwing their workers out of a fair deal.

Trackers, again: "While Media Tracker’s attempts to get a current list of Guild members have been stonewalled by Guild leadership, using DOL union documents, Media Trackers has been able to put together a list of the union’s leadership between 2000-2014. A list of newsroom employees that have taken advantage of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Right to Work is much harder to come by."

What? Media Trackers thinks that names of people who are members of private-sector labor unions are public information? Not! But worse, that erroneous idea is contrary to the importance of individual privacy that rhetoric conservatives frequently spout.

Trackers drones on:

"...Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl said in an opinion piece earlier this week that he has never been a member of the Guild and noted, `I don’t believe I need the protection of a union for an occupation like mine.' ”

That's on Stingl. A majority of the members of the bargaining unit clearly disagree with him. But now it won't just be a matter of a private contract that allows Stingl and others like him to skip out of their moral obligation to help pay for the benefits that their fellow workers spent money obtaining on their behalf; it'll be a state law. Freeloading codified!

Trackers, again: "Watchdog columnist Dan Bice has been, by his own admission, `in an[d] out of the Newspaper Guild over the years.' "

"Admission"? What? Is being a union member somehow subversive? Trackers goes on:

"Media Trackers received the following response from Journal Sentinel watchdog columnist Dan Bice regarding his union status: 'I am currently a member of the guild. I have been in and out of the guild on various occasions, as is permitted under our contract. I want to vote next week on our proposed two-year contract, so I am currently a member.' "

Wow, that's quite an admission. Bice only joins the union from time to time when he has a chance to influence what the union has bargained for on his behalf. Once that's decided, he apparently once again quits the union so he doesn't have to pony up anything more until the next contract is negotiated.

Pretty sleazy, even if it is "permitted" by right-to-work. A more ethically conscious employee would either be in the union or not, rather than constantly joining and quitting as his personal interests dictate. Bice's behavior in this regard seriously distorts the purposes and processes that define collective bargaining. As does a blanket right-to-work-for-less law. Bice again:

"Of course, everything I write is reviewed and changed by at least two editors who are not in the union.”

He means that, apparently, as a defense of his objectivity. And he's right, as far as he goes, but the implication is ugly: God forbid that anyone would think his columns are biased because he occasionally chooses to belong to his local bargaining unit. The most you could make of that is Bice's sheer opportunism -- the kind which, in his reporting, he finds unflattering among politicians.

Grist for everyone's mill, as they grind away some more at organized labor.

randomness