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NNE responds to Gazette union plea

  • The Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts.   STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE



For the Gazette
Thursday, November 15, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — The president and CEO of Newspapers of New England Inc. told Daily Hampshire Gazette and Valley Advocate employees that he and the company “strongly oppose” a union a day after a group of employees announced Monday the creation of the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild, which is seeking voluntary recognition from management. 

“We’re one of the few family-owned newspaper companies remaining in Massachusetts,” Aaron Julien, the company’s president and CEO, wrote in a Tuesday letter to all Gazette employees. “To stay that way, both employees and the owners have had to make sacrifices.” 

“I strongly believe that adding a union to the mix will erode this newspaper,” he continued. 

The company’s management was presented with a petition Monday when Julien met with Gazette and Advocate employees. In his letter, he acknowledged that “things have gotten off-track at the Gazette,” while the company was focused on a press project in New Hampshire — and that the meeting with employees alerted him to a communication failing. He expressed a willingness to work with employees to “restore a sense of shared goals” and “be more open about our mission at the Gazette” with “the intent on keeping our papers independent.” 

“In the face of stiff financial and industry headwinds, we’ve held onto this family group of newspapers rather than selling to a larger organization because we believe we can treat our employees and communities far better than a remotely owned chain would,” Julien wrote in his letter.

The Pioneer Valley NewsGuild consists of employees from both the Advocate and the Gazette, with members from accounting, advertising, circulation, design, editorial, maintenance and press, according to a statement issued by the union on Monday. It was created, in large part, with the mission of giving employees a say in company decisions. Employees must not hold managerial positions to be eligible for the union. Seventy-two employees are eligible, and 70 percent of them have signed the petition, according to the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild. 

On Monday, many of the newly unionized employees described frustration with their lack of voice and a lack of transparency in managerial decisions, as well as shifting job descriptions and gender disparities in pay. The issue of pay disparities was previously reported in the Gazette in February and, employees say, prompted efforts to start a union. Management has since taken steps to correct this issue. 

Reaction to Julien’s letter was mixed among Gazette employees interviewed on Wednesday. 

“I thought it was good. It was a nice try,” said Michelle Pontbriant, who has worked in customer service at the Gazette for 12 years. She said the letter will not change her support for the union. 

Kevin Robertson, a pressman who has worked for the Gazette for 40 years, is an eligible employee but said he has not signed the petition.

Whereas some employees have complained about shifting job descriptions, Robertson said he sees these changes as a flexible response to rapid changes in the newspaper industry and appreciates how this has helped the newspapers endure hard times. 

“I can’t call it beneficial, but it helps us survive,” Roberston said.

Robertson said he has heard some negative stories about unions from friends, but overall, these stories have not deterred him from considering joining the union. 

“At this point in my life,” he said, “I’m willing to give it a try.”

Dusty Christensen, a Gazette reporter, said he agrees with Julien’s message that there needs to be more communication in the workplace and is convinced that a union will be the way to improve communication.

“We think that we can collaborate in the workplace,” Christensen said, noting that collaboration means the workplace is more democratic, with employees having a voice in managerial decisions.

“In his letter, Aaron Julien seemed to portray the union as an outside force. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Christensen said.  

Christensen, who has worked at the Gazette since March 2017, said building a union has been a unifying factor among employees. “I’ve never seen workers here more united,” he said.

In a related development, employees who belong to the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild sent signed authorization cards Tuesday to the National Labor Relations Board, an independent government agency that enforces the National Labor Rights Act.

Stephanie Basile, a senior campaign lead with the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America, a union that would be the parent union of the Pioneer Valley NewsGuild if the latter is formally recognized, explained an approximate timeline for the coming weeks. The NLRB facilitates a number of legal steps that have been triggered from receiving the authorization cards signed by Advocate and Gazette employees. After receiving the employees’ authorization cards on Tuesday, a field agent from the NLRB will work with attorneys from both the union and Newspapers of New England.

Within a week, the three parties must create a document, called a stipulated election agreement, which outlines when and how elections may take place. Support from more than 30 percent of eligible employees is required to authorize an election. 

“The election process is a legal set of events,” Basile explained. However, during this entire time period, New England Newspapers can voluntarily recognize the union, Basile added. If that were to happen, the union would sit down directly with the company to negotiate a contract.

The Gazette retained freelance reporter Maureen O’Reilly to cover this story.