Staff at Wyoming’s largest newspaper voted to join the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America Feb. 27, a sign that the recent wave of successful media union drives may be headed inland.
The Casper Star-Tribune is the first newspaper in Wyoming to unionize with the NewsGuild and the first paper to unionize under Lee Enterprises’ ownership, the union said.
All other recently unionized media outlets are located in urban hubs where news outlets “have tended to have high rates of unionization,” Francis Ryan, a labor history professor at Rutgers University, told Bloomberg Law. Editorial staff at the Los Angeles Times, Mic, and Slate have voted to join unions since the start of the year.
The move to unionize in Wyoming also appears to be stirring up potential organizing campaigns in neighboring states, despite the new bargaining unit’s small size, Arno Rosenfeld, a state politics reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune, said. Eleven people make up the new unit.
“This is definitely something that isn’t just relevant to folks in L.A. or New York. This is something that can be a good option for journalists and reporters anywhere in the country,” Rosenfeld told Bloomberg Law.
Parent Company Notes ‘Open Door Policy’
Lee Enterprises, the Star-Tribune’s parent company, owns five papers in neighboring Montana. The company cut staff at a few of those papers in early February. After the Star-Tribune staff announced its intention to unionize, the publisher hired back several Montana reporters, Rosenfeld said. The company said it was “taking a closer look at what was going on at those properties” at a meeting with Star-Tribune staff in February, he said.
Rosenfeld wouldn’t comment on whether union campaigns are brewing at the Montana papers, but he did say there has been talk of union drives at papers in other states. Lee Enterprises said it had no knowledge of other efforts to unionize at other locations. It wouldn’t comment on hiring decisions at its Montana papers.
“Lee has long held the position that an open door policy encouraging direct communication between all employees, both management and staff, promotes the best work environment for everyone,” Charles Arms, the director of corporate communications for the company, told Bloomberg Law. “We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our employees; however, we recognize the right of the Star-Tribune newsroom to unionize and will negotiate with the Casper News Guild in good faith.”
The company owns news outlets in 21 states, including Wyoming.
“I will approach working with the Casper News Guild in my long-established spirit of doing what is best for the future of our community of readers, employees and customers,” Dale Bohren, the Casper paper’s publisher, wrote in an email to Bloomberg Law.
Difficult Road May Be Ahead
The paper’s Wyoming location might make it more vulnerable to the struggles unions face in right-to-work states, like keeping a union alive and viable and getting a first contract, Paula Voos, a labor relations professor at Rutgers University, told Bloomberg Law.
In Wyoming, about 6 percent of workers are union members, according to Bloomberg Law data. In California and New York, where most of the other recently unionized publications are headquartered, roughly 16 percent and 24 percent of workers, respectively, are in a union, the data show.
But Rosenfeld doesn’t think Wyoming’s right-to-work status will make or break the union, he said
Lee Enterprises was respectful during the union drive, he said. The bargaining committee will just have to be vigilant that it is keeping the best interests of the bargaining unit in mind.
“It really means that we need to come up with a contract that people think is valuable for them,” he said.
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(Updated with additional reporting throughout)