On a typical foggy May day, delegates t0 the Bay Area maritime trades department council met aboard the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, docked at pier 45 in San Francisco.
About 30 union leaders gathered in the mess hall of the Liberty ship to hear a presentation by Pacific Media Workers Guild Executive Officer Carl Hall. Hall spoke about the changing landscape of the Bay Area’s print news. But first he acknowledged the Titanic movie one-sheets that were posted at the back of the mess hall.
“Running the Newspaper Guild is like being the tuner of the player piano on the Titanic. Even if you get it right, you’re still going down,” quipped Hall.
Hall went on to observe that newspaper unions are “as troubled as you can get;” that mass-produced print journalism is no longer the center of the media world. The Guild used to represent close to 1,200 newspaper workers in San Francisco, counting newsroom, advertising and office support at the Chronicle, Examiner and San Francisco Newspaper Agency. During the newspaper strike of 1994, close to a dozen different unions joined on the picket lines — some 2,200 workers, top to bottom.
Now, the Guild represents under 300 members at the Chronicle. The Teamsters represent a much-reduced workforce of drivers and news vendors. Everything else has either been outsourced or eliminated.
To survive, Hall said, the Guild has embarked on a program to diversify, organizing court interpreters and other language-service workers, developing a vibrant freelance unit, reaching out to students, and collaborating with nonprofits to fight for quality jobs and journalism.
“It’s no time to get mired in self-pity,” Hall said.
One element has involved working on alternative ownership models. As Hall put it, “Why don’t we own the means of production?” Labor and other progressive organizations should be putting together consortia to buy media, he said, spanning print, broadcast and online forms.
Despite having no capital to add of its own, the Guild helped create a nonprofit, The Bay Citizen, San Francisco startup news organization funded in large part by the generosity of the late philanthropist Warren Hellman. More recently, the Guild played a role in getting The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa purchased by a consortium of local investors.
The Pacific Media Workers Guild, the product of four mergers of smaller Guild locals, has been at the forefront of national efforts by the Newspaper Guild to restructure local chapters. The local has been an innovator in other ways, throughout its history. During the strike of 1994, for instance, the San Francisco Free Press online editions were recognized as the first general interest news service to be produced on the internet.
The Guild created a freelance unit so that those without traditional employment relationships can still be in a union. The unit provides training workshops, issues media credentials, operates a referral service, and recently added reduced-cost health insurance to the array of services available to members.
Studies show a growing share — more than 40 percent by one recent estimate — of the the American workforce consists of “non-employee employees,” as Hall put it, arguing that unions like the Media Workers must find a way for these workers to help rebuild a labor community.
Investing in the next generation is also part of the Guild’s mission. To reach out to high schools and colleges to teach future journalists the value of unionism is high on the Guild’s agenda. Young people today don’t know much about unions, might not know anyone in a union, and aren’t exposed to decent reporting about unions. It’s labor’s job to connect with these young people and tell them what the labor movement is all about.
Veteran waterfront and construction-trade labor leaders in the audience quizzed Hall on how to educate young people about the positive aspects of unions at a time when union members are portrayed as “thugs” and “miscreants.” Hall responded that the best way to combat such misconceptions is by spending time with the young people – visiting schools and making presentations, attending job fairs, setting up mentorship programs and marketing apprenticeship programs. “The labor movement ought to set up a “Labor in the Schools” program,” suggested Hall. “No one’s going to do that for us.”
Apropos of the location of the day’s meeting, Hall reminded the audience that actions of the waterfront unions were critical to the Guild’s formation in the 1930s. Members of the ILWU have marched with their cargo hooks from the waterfront warehouses to the front door of the newspaper offices downtown, calling on the media barons to deal fairly with the Newspaper Guild during its formative years.
The Guild would never have gotten established on the West Coast without the support of unions such as the Teamsters and the ILWU, Hall said.
“Our future may be all about change,” Hall said. “But one thing we won’t change is our commitment to solidarity.”
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Gunnar Lundeberg is President and Nick Celona is Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Bay Area and Vicinity Port Maritime Council. FX Crowley served as President Pro Tempore of the meeting in May in Lundeberg’s absence. Click here to learn more about the Sailors Union of the Pacific.