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The Republic building in 2013.
The Republic building in 2013.
Zeb Micelli, CC 1.0

Arizona Republic Journalists Overwhelmingly Vote to Unionize

Editorial employees at the Arizona Republic voted to unionize on Thursday.

The vote in favor of representation by the NewsGuild-CWA (Communications Workers of America) comes as the Republic’s parent company, Gannett, finalizes a merger with GateHouse Media.

About 64 employees voted for unionization while 30 voted no, according to a preliminary tally. A total of 101 employees were eligible to vote.

About 30 employees were present as a representative from the National Labor Relations Board counted votes by hand, sources said. Executive editor Greg Burton, who sent multiple department-wide emails opposing the union, was also present.

Sighs of relief filled the room as the counter announced the vote.

Investigative reporter Rebekah Sanders, one of the most outspoken union supporters in the newsroom, yelled out "we did it!" A video posted on Twitter showed several supporters hugging and cheering over the news.

The historic vote means employees of the Republic will form a collective bargaining unit to negotiate a contract with management, where working conditions as salaries, benefits, and layoff protections could be on the table.

GateHouse Media’s acquisition of Gannet will create one of the largest media organizations in the world. Corporate executives stand to gain from the merger. But journalists face uncertainty as GateHouse’s CEO has promised to make $300 million in cuts.

The election follows a tense month at the Phoenix-based newspaper, where the organization's parent company, Gannett, has mounted an aggressive anti-union campaign.

Republic employees began organizing in January, following a round of corporate layoffs that claimed the job of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson. The campaign intensified in August after Gannett announced the proposed merger with GateHouse.

Voting took place in the editorial board room of the Republic's downtown office from noon to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

The election caps off a tense month at the Phoenix-based newspaper.

After employees went public with their union drive, Gannett mounted an aggressive anti-union campaign that at its most dramatic moments made national headlines.

As summer turned to fall, and the Republic's breaking-news desk cubicles became festooned with yellow crime tape and other Halloween decorations, the downtown newsroom has also become a staging ground for dueling messages pitting union supporters against management.

Employees walking into the office were greeted this week by blue posters from Republic bosses attempting to persuade them not to unionize. Management's propaganda competed with white placards emblazoned with a pro-union logo designed by Benson, the laid-off cartoonist.

Earlier this month, employees received an unsigned memo on their desks purporting to offer "SOME COMMON SENSE TALK ABOUT COLLECTIVE BARGAINING."

The memo stated that Gannett and the Republic would bargain in good faith if employees voted for union representation, but warned staffers that they could lose some benefits in negotiations.

Union supporters countered with their own printout featuring testimonials from reporters in unionized newsrooms who have not lost benefits as a result of collective bargaining. In addition to the poster war, union supporters have maintained an ambitious digital campaign to court support, which has included videos featuring staff members, tweets extolling the work of both pro- and anti-union colleagues, and an informational website.

Management last month invited Detroit Free Press editor-in-chief Peter Bhatia to visit the newsroom for two days to hold meetings with on-the-fence Republic employees to dissuade them from voting for unionization. Bhatia's newspaper, which is also owned by Gannett, has been unionized for decades.

In contrast with mandatory newsroom-wide meetings that Republic management held in the beginning of September, Bhatia's meetings targeted small groups of employees perceived to be on-the-fence about unionizing.

While the atmosphere in the newsroom remains tense, the Republic's anti-union messaging has toned down compared to management's tactics in early September.

Republic executive editor Greg Burton made headlines then after sending a department-wide email likening organizers to murderers and child molesters. Burton accused union supporters of conducting "surveillance" on their colleagues.

Union supporters claimed the alleged surveillance referred to organizers keeping track of their co-workers' support for their efforts, which is standard in union organizing.

Days later, a Gannett human resources employee confiscated the work phone of veteran reporter Sanders, one of the Republic's most vocal union supporters as part of an investigation into the alleged surveillance, an accusation Sanders vehemently denied. Sanders got her phone back the next day.

Burton's email and the confiscation of Sanders' phone received national attention and galvanized public support for the union drive.

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