MEDIA

Arizona Republic Editor Warns Staff To 'Carefully Consider The Consequences' Of Unionizing

Greg Burton accused union sympathizers of "surveilling" other journalists, saying that's something he'd expect of a murderer or child molester.
A copy of the Arizona Republic following the death of John McCain.
A copy of the Arizona Republic following the death of John McCain.

Arizona Republic Executive Editor Greg Burton sent a staffwide email Thursday lamenting a “divisive unionization effort” that had taken hold in his newsroom. But his email probably didn’t go far in restoring harmony.

Burton alleged that ”several employees, in pursuit of their goal of unionizing our newsroom, are tracking the comings and goings of a number of their co-workers” who don’t support the effort. Without elaborating on the allegation, Burton went on to tell the story of how a shady former detective he once reported on had entered his house and made a recording, as an illustration of the sort of scumbag who would surveil somebody.

“I reference this incident to underscore the fact that journalists are targets of political haymakers and troublemakers, of operatives and would-be intimidators, of crackpots and criminals,” Burton wrote. “We are targets on social media. We are targets when we stand firm on a story that unmasks a murderer running for office, a teacher who molests children, an appointee who bulldozes indigenous artifacts or stockpiles weapons, a mobster who doesn’t much like being called a scam artist or a dirty trickster intent on DOXing a critic.”

He clarified: “These are the types who surveil journalists. Journalists don’t surveil other journalists.”

Stephanie Basile, an organizer with the NewsGuild, which is hoping to represent the Republic’s staffers, called the idea that pro-union employees were surveilling colleagues “absurd.” Basile said the union has a bingo-style card it hands out to workers enumerating the most common anti-union messages that come from employers.

“We never thought we would have to add ‘You’re murderers and child molesters’ to our bingo card,” she said.

The Arizona Republic has long been a nonunion newspaper. But its parent company, news giant Gannett, is in line to merge with another massive publisher, GateHouse Media. Many journalists fear the merger would lead to even more layoffs after local papers have already been cut to the bone. As the Phoenix New-Times reported, some staffers at the Republic now see unionization as a potential buffer against turmoil, a way to preserve their jobs and their journalism.

Workers successfully unionize their workplace through a secret ballot, unless the employer has agreed to voluntarily recognize the union, which Gannett is unlikely to do. Because pro-union workers need to win 50% of the vote, it’s common practice in any organizing campaign to keep a tally of who favors the union and who doesn’t, and to discuss how to persuade the latter. But it’s not immediately clear what surveillance would accomplish for the Republic’s union sympathizers.

Rebekah Sanders, a reporter at the Republic covering consumer protection and a supporter of the union effort, said she knows of no surveillance afoot on her side. Any intimidation in the campaign, she said, has come from management, with Gannett sending in bigwigs to hold meetings with staff to discourage them from organizing. One such visit came from Maribel Wadsworth, the president of Gannett’s USA Today Network, she said.

“People are exhausted by the company’s negativity,” Sanders said. “Folks in the newsroom who are working on this organizing have approached colleagues with respect and friendship … and we’ve repeatedly said that everyone’s opinions matter.”

Sanders said she likes what Burton has done in his 18 months atop the Republic masthead, and that she’s pulling for him to succeed. As for his email, “I think this is just him being pressured by his bosses 2,000 miles away who see us all as a line item,” she said, referencing Gannett. “The executives back in McLean, Virginia, are so bent on preventing employees from uniting and working together to protect local journalism that they’ve stooped to comparing us to criminals.”

E.J. Montini, a columnist at the paper, said plenty of people have strong feelings on both sides of the union drive, but the discussion so far has been civil. He described the accusation of surveillance or intimidation as a “distraction” that he hopes people ignore. He favors unionizing but said everyone should approach the decision for themselves.

“The people organizing the union aren’t a bunch of thugs. They’re regular people like the rest of us,” he said. “We’re not talking about ‘The Sopranos’ here.”

Burton’s email included an admonition: “If organized surveillance and spying are already occurring in the face of a divisive unionization effort, I hope you carefully consider the consequences of bringing the Guild into our workplace.” 

HuffPost reached out to Burton to see if he could offer more detail on the alleged surveillance, as well as any discipline that might be in the offing. His email noted that ”surveillance activities or any type of harassment or intimidation of employees in this newsroom will not be tolerated to any degree. Any such conduct will be addressed through disciplinary channels.”

Burton responded, “The email speaks for itself, and we do not comment on personnel matters.”

Read Burton’s email in full here: 

Subject: Surveillance of your coworkers

All: It has come to my attention that several employees, in pursuit of their goal of unionizing our newsroom, are tracking the comings and goings of a number of their co-workers (reporters, editors, producers and photographers) who do not support unionization.

This is an affront to our newsroom. It’s the antithesis of courage in the pursuit of journalism. It undermines relationships we’ve nurtured. It’s an attack on our flexible workplace, where we have freely permitted the adjustment of employee schedules to meet their needs – for a child at school or a spouse who is home sick, a parent who requires help or a medical appointment.

We have been told that one union supporter threatened that things will get “even messier” in the weeks to come. If organized surveillance and spying are already occurring in the face of a divisive unionization effort, I hope you carefully consider the consequences of bringing the Guild into our workplace. 

Let me tell you about surveillance at my home because I refused to kill a story about police shootings in California. A former detective who had shot two people – including an innocent bystander – got into my house, turned on a video camera and made a recording of my dining room, my front door, my living room and my son, then 17, who didn’t know enough to turn him away.

I reference this incident to underscore the fact that journalists are targets of political haymakers and troublemakers, of operatives and would-be intimidators, of crackpots and criminals. We are targets on social media. We are targets when we stand firm on a story that unmasks a murderer running for office, a teacher who molests children, an appointee who bulldozes indigenous artifacts or stockpiles weapons, a mobster who doesn’t much like being called a scam artist or a dirty trickster intent on DOXing a critic.

These are the types who surveil journalists.

Journalists don’t surveil other journalists.

Colleagues who have produced award-winning work together as a team do not surveil one another.

Standing together to fight on behalf of the public is a surmountable task for the very reason that our newsroom is a sanctified space. It’s a place where we defend one another, where a supervisor can flex a reporter’s schedule – because they know and trust each other.

Let me make this clear: surveillance activities or any type of harassment or intimidation of employees in this newsroom will not be tolerated to any degree. Any such conduct will be addressed through disciplinary channels. I expect every employee to conduct herself or himself and treat co-workers and managers with respect and professionalism.

If you have any questions or concerns or want to discuss this, please reach out to me and/or Amber Anderson in HR.

GB

Greg Burton

Executive Editor/West Regional Editor

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