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July 5, 2012

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In a nice piece of media reporting, Nooga.com’s Chloé Morrison crafted an in-depth story for the local news website late last week about attempts of anonymous organizers to unionize Our Daily via an email to staffers designed to “test the level of interest ... and gauge the nature of management’s response” before revealing their identities.

Interest, according to the organizer’s spokesperson, is strong. Management’s response? Not so strong yet, but fast. Matthew Salada, the paper’s human resources director, quickly tried to tamp down any rumblings among staffers by claiming the email was spam “to obtain access to your Google account username and password,” he wrote in his own email to employees, according to Morrison’s story.

We won’t attempt to explain the whole story here; Morrison did an excellent job of reporting on the opening salvo from the Workers of the Times Free Press, as the group calls itself, as well as a concise history of unions—and their poor history in the South. You can read her story, “Anonymous group seeks to unionize Chattanooga Times Free Press” on Nooga.com, which also contains links to the flier the group circulated via email through the paper as well as a link to their Facebook page.

The unionizing move was the result, according to the group’s spokesperson, of the alleged action of the paper’s management of inserting undercover “consultants” planted in the newsroom posing as interns to see who can be eliminated or what work can be outsourced—what was called “right-sizing the operation.”

Regardless of legitimacy of the group or its claims, it’s no secret that times are tough at the TFP, as they are at almost every daily newspaper across the country. In the wake of news that the New Orleans Times-Picayune is soon to become the nation’s largest city without a daily newspaper (the paper is downsizing, switching to three-day publication and focusing on its website), similar downsizing rumbles have echoed through newsrooms across the country. So it’s no surprise a union movement might arise.

Problem is, newspaper unions—though once strong—have all but disappeared, especially in the South, where employers have been historically anti-union for decades. That said, it’s not illegal for employees to organize a union—it’s just dangerous, hence the secrecy.

While employees are protected from being targeted by employers for attempting to form a union, it is possible that an employer could use something else as a pretext to fire someone, said attorney Maury Nicely in the Nooga.com story.

“The smart employee does not do this publicly, and the smart employer doesn’t terminate employees because they engage in this discussion,” Nicely was quoted in Morrison’s story.

It’s worth noting that the TFP’s Salada is a former labor and employment attorney who must be aware he has to tread lightly if the organizers are indeed real and attempts to unionize the paper move forward.

It’s also worth noting that while most newspaper staffers—here and elsewhere—might be sympathetic to a union effort (there is union activity at the Knoxville and Memphis papers, the story reports), they may also be justifiably nervous about aligning themselves with the effort for fear of reprisal on another front.

On the other hand, newspapers—especially daily newspapers—aren’t gaining any ground; in fact, the reverse appears to be true if New Orleans is any indication, so the question some might be asking is: What have we got to lose?

“Job security isn’t for suckers; you can have it too,” reads the first line of the email sent to TFP staffers. Will they rise and rally or hunker down and hope for the best?

As the anonymous organizer was quoted in an email to Nooga.com: “This is a story that will have legs. Stay tuned.”

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July 5, 2012

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