When the Hearst Corporation shut down the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition, negotiating individual deals with about 20 of the P-I's 170 employees to produce an online-only P-I, there was a lot of grumbling about union busting.
After all, take away the nostalgia and emotion that surrounded the death of this city's oldest daily newspaper, and what you had was a large business with a unionized workforce suddenly becoming a much smaller business with a nonunion workforce. Hearst didn't even have to recruit a whole new staff to accomplish this. All it had to do was announce mass P-I layoffs and offer to hire a small percentage of the P-I's journalists back for a new online-only entity, and the combination of a deep recession and tremendous anxiety about the future of newspapers took care of the rest. According to accounts from P-I staffers, many took significant benefit and pay cuts—in addition to dropping out of the union—in order to secure their new jobs at seattlepi.com.
Part of what lefty Seattle liked about the old P-I was that it was a union shop, walking the labor-friendly talk of its editorial writers. Now it's just another business, leveraging economic anxiety against reporters' sense that their increasingly demanding jobs deserve good compensation. One Seattle Times journalist, seeing that Congressman Jim McDermott was contributing to the new online-only P-I, remarked in an e-mail: "So how do supposed liberals like McDermott... justify contributing to a 'paper' that just shitcanned the union and hired back people at substandard wages and benefits? I am surprised no one has brought that up in this supposedly union town."
Similarly, former P-I reporter Debera Harrell, speaking to the Columbia Journalism Review on March 17, the day after Hearst announced the print P-I's closure, said: "A huge truth is that online journalism is being deployed to break unions—and I say this on behalf of my many highly educated, talented colleagues who are now without jobs because of this unfortunate trend. The corporate bottom line has trumped public service."
Well, has it? Michelle Nicolosi, executive producer for the new online-only P-I, didn't return a call to discuss the venture's stance on union membership. Neither did Hearst spokesman Paul Luthringer. And Liz Brown, administrator for the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, the union that represented P-I employees back when the P-I was also a newspaper, would only answer questions over e-mail—and she wouldn't answer all of them.
"We do have an agreement with Hearst that it will recognize the guild as the collective bargaining agent for the people from our membership that it hired for seattlepi.com," Brown wrote. "And we have an opportunity to bargain for what I hope will be a groundbreaking new contract. It will not look like our old P-I contract."
Brown would not elaborate on the agreement, nor would she say how many former guild members are now at the new P-I. Nor would she reveal whether any of them even want to be in the union again. Which suggests that this could be a daunting organizing challenge for the guild. A significant number of the current seattlepi.com employees were never represented by the guild in the past—with the most well-known case being blogger Monica Guzman, whose hiring as a union-exempt "new media" employee in 2007 triggered an unsuccessful lawsuit by the guild. It's unclear whether these employees, who were willing to work for Hearst without union representation before, will want to be in a union now. Even Joel Connelly, the resolutely pro-labor columnist, said he was "torn" about the idea of unionizing seattlepi.com—though he has made it clear that he had to give up a huge potential severance payment from Hearst and take benefit cuts in order to join the venture.
To at least one seattlepi.com employee, the idea of unionizing is simply too much of a distraction at the moment—a moment that, for the site's employees, is a bit like the frenzied launch of a start-up. "I just haven't given it enough serious thought to know what I'd do or what I'd want," this person said, adding: "I feel my salary is just fine."
For her part, Brown doesn't seem to expect a lot of support from Hearst as the guild tries to unionize the new P-I workforce. "I don't think the attitude of most employers toward unions has changed or is going to change any time soon," she said.