Big BANG Labor Boom: Union Vote Set for Bay Area Papers

By Richard Brenneman
Friday May 23, 2008 - 05:07:00 PM

Media mogul Dean Singleton’s union-busting moves at his Bay Area newspapers have hit a major roadblock—a regional unionization vote scheduled for next month. 

And with two-thirds of potential members signing cards declaring their intent to go union, “we have a clear majority,” said Carl Hall, the San Francisco Chronicle science reporter who has taken leave from his job to head the campaign for the Media Workers Guild. 

The June 13 vote will come 11 months after MediaNews Group [http://www.medianewsgroup.com/] withdrew recognition from union contracts at the Oakland Tribune, and four other East Bay newspapers. 

Guild organizers and potential members will gather at Live Oak Park in Berkeley May 31 for a barbecue and to rally in support of the campaign in the run-up to the election. 

Singleton, a Texas-born journalist turned media magnate, has cornered the market in suburban papers in the state’s two major media markets, the Bay Area News Group in the north and the Los Angeles News Group to the south—BANG and LANG. 

Holdings of Singleton’s MediaNews Group reach across the country, stretching from Vermont to California, with his newspapers claiming a combined daily circulation of 2.6 million, with 2.9 million for Sundays. 

His Bay Area papers include the Alameda Times-Star, Fremont Argus, Hayward Daily Review, the Contra Costa Times, the Marin Independent Journal, the Milpitas Post, the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the Vallejo Times-Herald and the Pleasanton Tri-Valley Herald. 

Singleton acquired his Bay Area holdings from different owners, starting in 1986, with the purchase of the chain that owned the Hayward, Fremont and Pleasanton papers.  

He bought the Oakland Tribune in 1992, and he bought his largest local papers—the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News—on Aug. 2, 2006 from Sacramento-based McClatchy Co., which had needed to sell them off to cover the cost of other papers it had purchased when buying out the assets of the previous owner, Knight-Ridder. 

His latest regional acquisition was the Santa Cruz Sentinel on Feb. 2, 2007. Five months later, the Sentinel’s editorial offices left Santa Cruz for Scotts Valley, the end of a 150-year presence in the city center. Three months later the company closed its Santa Cruz pressroom and began printing at the Mercury-News. 

A similar move on May 20, 2007, took the Oakland Tribune newsroom from its landmark downtown tower to Airport Corporate Center on Oakport Street near the sports edifice formerly known as the Oakland Coliseum.  

MediaNews runs BANG, LANG and its other California companies as a division called the California Newspaper Partnership. Former Knight-Ridder executive Steven Rossi was name group CEO earlier this year. Rossi had been president of Knight-Ridder’s newspaper division prior to the company’s sale.  

Unlike most media conglomerates, MediaNews isn’t a publicly traded company, and on April 9 corporate Chief Financial Officer Ronald A. Mayo filed notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the company would no longer make public financial filings with the agency. 

Singleton has acquired the reputation of being a ruthless manager, and he pink-slipped workers at his earlier regional buys, rehiring some of the workers but invariably reducing his workforce in the process and eliminating seniority. 

According to the Sacramento Business Journal, MediaNews outsourced customer service operations to Philippine call centers earlier this month for the Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times. 

The Contra Costa Times, unlike the Mercury-News, wasn’t a union shop, and on July 26, 2007, the newly purchased papers were combined with Singleton’s other holdings to form BANG-EB (for East Bay). 

The five Alameda County papers had all been part of the ANG papers, and workers were covered under a union contract. But with the addition of the Contra Costa Times and its affiliated papers, suddenly the new group had a non-union workforce majority. 

“He didn’t include the Mercury News, which has a union contract and would have given the group a union majority,” Hall said. 

The other shoe dropped three weeks later, when, on Aug. 13, MediaNews Group announced it was withdrawing recognition of the Northern California Media Workers Guild [http://mediaworkers.org/] at the five BANG-EB papers where it had contracts: the Tribune, the Argus, the Daily Review, the San Mateo County Times and the Tri-Valley Herald. 

That same week, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that the withdrawal of recognition violated federal labor law, and one week after the withdrawal, the national union announced it was funding an organizing campaign targeting all the BANG-EB papers. They call it One Big BANG. [see http://onebigbang.org/] 

The national Media Workers Guild is bankrolling the campaign with $500,000, which Hall is coordinating with the help of two paid staffers and three organizers who report for Singleton’s East Bay papers.  

Together with the Contra Costa Times, the BANG-EB group has a combined circulation of 334,274 on weekdays and 349,758 on Sunday, according to the MediaNews web site, which uses figures as of March 31, 2007. 

Adding in the Mercury-News, Independent Journal, Vallejo Times-Herald and Santa Cruz Sentinel, the combined circulations of Singleton’s Bay Area papers total 647,761 on weekdays and 678,948 on weekends. 

Declining circulation figures have devastated Bay Area newsrooms, and news holes—the amount of print space devoted to stories and photo coverage of events—have steadily dwindled as readers turn away from print in the hand to pixels on the screen.