The Statesman strike: Today employees of the Austin American-Statesman took part in a one-day strike observed by unionized employees at other news outlets owned by Gannett, the multi-media conglomerate that purchased the Statesman five years ago.
Watching the journalists and their allies (Congressman Greg Casar made an appearance!) picket on the S. Congress Bridge this morning evoked mixed emotions.
Five years ago, when I wrote a story about the paper's acquisition by a vampiric media conglomerate, the idea of the newsroom unionizing was unfathomable. I broached the topic with several Statesman reporters I knew, but the concept was utterly foreign to them. Some mistakenly believed that Texas's "right-to-work" law rendered unionization impossible or futile.
So it was tremendously gratifying nearly three years later to see employees of the Statesman announce a union drive. Their announcement followed successful union drives at the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Among other things, the Statesman employees are demanding that Gannett, which has been dragging out contract negotiations for nearly two years, agree to a deal to increase the base salary from $40,000 to $60,000. The unions at the Dallas and Fort Worth papers were able to negotiate minimum salaries above $50,000 despite lower housing costs in those areas.
And yet, the crowd that assembled on the bridge today also served as a poignant reminder that there is only so much a union can do to shield its members and their craft from corporate avarice and ineptitude. The Statesman's headcount has declined 60% since its acquisition by Gannett in late 2017. Many of those who showed up for today's protest were former employees. Indeed, it was union president Luz Moreno-Lozano's last day –– tomorrow she starts at new job covering City Hall for KUT.
In some ways it reminded me of the two trips I've made to Louisiana to research Cajun French. The valiant efforts to preserve and revive the language are necessary and inspiring, and yet, I often come away with the sad feeling that it is too little, too late.
Hopefully that's not the case here, although it's hardly encouraging that Gannett shareholders, who held their annual meeting today, didn't appear to be swayed by the strike. The meeting apparently lasted eight minutes and CEO Mike Reed, whose annual compensation was $7.7 million last year and $3.4 million this year, took no questions. Gannett, which is deep in debt following a prolonged newspaper shopping spree, saw a drop in revenue last year but increased profits by virtue of cost-cutting. The problem is, they're almost certainly not done cutting: they're betting they can reduce a newspaper to almost nothing but still make money off the remaining subscribers, which includes a lot of older people who still out of habit rely on the local daily for national AP stories etc.
I hope resistance isn't futile. I hope that the actions taken by these journalists I saw on the bridge today will prompt some self-reflection among the non-journalists who hold the fate of the Statesman and many other local newspapers in their hands.
The search for a permanent city manager begins: Mayor Kirk Watson has asked several Council members to serve with him on a sub-quorum to begin the search for a new city manager.