Vermont news battle

In Brattleboro, Vt., a town of 6,000, a major media union struggles is unfolding.

The local daily newspaper, the Brattleboro Reformer, with a circulation of 11,500, is owned by the Dean Singleton MediaNews Group, the seventh largest newspaper company in the U.S. It has collided head-on with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International union (PACE) over wages, respect, and quality journalism.

The first casualty in this struggle for union recognition is Eesha Williams, who was fired from the Reformer four days after making public his support of the union. Williams who is the author of the book, Grassroots Journalism: A Practical Manual, started working for the Reformer about a year ago.

The Reformer claims Williams was in “breach of journalistic ethics” and that his firing has nothing to do with his union activity. To PACE and its supporters the Reformer’s claims are highly suspect: there were never any complaints issued against Williams prior to the organizing campaign. Williams has had more front-page articles than any other Reformer reporter. Williams asks, “Why run my articles in the front page if I’m in breach of journalistic ethics?”

According to Williams, the union campaign that started last fall had been brewing since 1995 when the Singleton Group acquired the paper. “Wages went down immediately,” Williams said. “Some workers who have been here for twenty years are making less now than they were in 1995.”

The average yearly salary for the 41 Reformer employees eligible to join PACE is $20,000, about half of what union newspaper employees make. “The union is widely supported among the staff,” said Williams, adding, “In any other industrial country in the world, we would already have our union.”

Dean Singleton, a notoriously anti-union Colorado billionaire who owns 48 daily and 121 weekly newspapers in the U.S., also heads the Newspaper Association of America, which represents the interests of newspaper owners. The MediaNews Group was one of the principal lobbyists for the recent gutting of FCC cross-ownership rules.

The Nashville-based union-busting law firm King and Ballow has been retained to send “representatives” to Brattleboro to intimidate, confuse and coerce union members.

According to Williams, “This is exactly the kind of [anti-union] stuff you read about. … They tell the employees that union leaders have criminal records, that the union will force them to go on strike, that the union can’t guarantee wages or benefits.”

This struggle is being watched closely by newspaper workers nationally. The success or defeat of Reformer employees will have repercussions throughout the industry.

The author can be reached at tonypec@pww.org