Buffalo Newspaper Guild: Past and Present
by Mike Vogel
Nearly half a century apart, they represent votes of hope and votes of desperation; out of one was born a union, and from the other was born one of unionism’s most dramatic moments in a strongly union town.
Those who met to form the Buffalo Newspaper Guild in 1934, in answer to Heywood Broun’s call for strength among journalism’s laborers, began a process of struggles, trials, defeats and victories that continues today. And the legacy they left for the Guildsmen and Guildswomen of today brought both victory and defeat in a single moment, just before that half-century milestone was reached.
In 1982, the Guild unit at the Buffalo Courier Express voted its own demise, rather than sacrifice union principles; its refusal to accept destructive compromise in both work and journalistic standards ensured strength in the Guild’s remaining major Buffalo unit and bequeathed to it a mandate for quality and solidarity.
Ironically, both votes, for union life, and union death, were cast in the same building, the Hotel Statler, and each involved a kind of courtesy, ending one organization to provide strength for another.
Nearly 50 years earlier, Broun issued the call for unionism through his New York newspaper column, and in nearby Cleveland newsmen responded with the first local of what soon become a national Guild.
“The fact that newspaper editors and owners were genial folk should hardly stand in the way of the organization of a newspaper writer’s union,” wrote Broun in that 1933 column.
The time was right for unionism. A government survey showed that one of every five reporters earned less than $20 per week, and hours were long and irregular with two of every three newspaper workers getting neither extra pay nor comp time for overtime. It also showed that one of every eight newspaper workers had no vacation rights, and that paid holidays were rare and dismissals were both frequent and arbitrary.
Broun’s call found willing listeners. At the Press Club in Buffalo, the handful of active members caught the spark of enthusiasm he kindled and began talking union.
The Press Club, an informal name carried over from an older social club, had a roster of 200 members but only about 15 were still active as 1934 dawned. As they began thinking Guild, there were arguments that the new organization should have a fresh start but there also were arguments that the fledgling union could benefit from the club’s roster of names and its quarters in the Hotel Statler.
On a Sunday afternoon, Jan. 21, 1934, the Press Club held its last meeting and the Buffalo Newspaper Guild was born.
Interest in the new union was evidenced by the voter turn-out; 116 persons, including 48 from the News, voted in that first election. On Feb. 19, 1934, the new organization took another major step; just over two months from the Dec. 15 meetings in Washington that had formed the American Newspaper Guild, the Buffalo local applied for its charter from the national body.
On March 20, 1934, the Newspaper Guild of Buffalo received charter number 26 from the ANG, signed by Broun as president.
Buffalo had a Guild on paper. For the first few years, though, that paper didn’t include anything that looked like a Guild contract.
It took three years for the union to bear fruit, in the form of the Guild’s first contract with a Buffalo newspaper. On May 17, 1937, the Guild and the Buffalo Times agreed “to set up mutually agreeable hours, minimums and other working conditions; to reserve all those elements of newspaper publishing that safeguard an independent press; and to establish the principle of collective bargaining between management and editorial employees of the Times.”
There were no provisions for protection against arbitrary firings, for insurance, for grievance procedures, for pensions; there were landmark agreements for salary “steps” from $22.50 to $42.50 per week in three years, for two weeks vacation after two years service, for compensatory time off for overtime, for a five-day, 40-hour work week.
Just five years later, Scripps-Howard’s tabloid Times folded. Guild secretary Arthur P. Reed Jr. wrote “Brother Broun” a note of appreciation for the Guild’s telegram of condolence. The Buffalo Guild had lost its only Guild shop.
With $71.69 in the Guild treasury in the summer of ’42, president James Wessel sent sign-up petitions to staff members at The Buffalo News. A Guild women’s auxiliary was formed and a Guild blood donors’ drive was held, and two ANG organizers came from Washington to work with the News and Courier-Express staffers.
Strategy meetings were frequent, at the old Hotel Worth near the Main and Seneca home of the Evening News. When Wessel was drafted into the Army, Nat Gorham took over the Guild presidency and the organizing campaign. The Guild declared it represented a majority of News editorial employees, and on May 11, 1943 the National Labor Relations Board held an election at the News.
There were tensions in the newsroom in the days before the election; the NLRB warned News executives to stop anti-Guild activities and a quickly organized move to form a company union failed to meet a deadline for inclusion on the ballot. The Guild won the election by a slim 65-69 margin.
Negotiations got under way, with the Guild winning severance pay gains, overtime pay, night differential, maintenance of membership and a freeze on pay cuts and dismissals during the term of the contract.
In 1953, there was still another organizing effort at the Buffalo Courier-Express and at the city’s wire service offices. They were substantially aided, it’s said, by a new Courier executive editor whose policies alienated and frightened employees, driving newsroom morale to an all-time low. A consent election was scheduled for Feb. 19, 1953, and the Guild won 57-38.
On June 3, 1953, the Guild signed its first contract at the Courier, winning reporters’ salary steps from $55 to $115, a Guild shop, dues check-off, job security and other gains. A wage reopener provided even more gains on January 1, 1954.
At the Niagara Falls Gazette, things weren’t going anywhere near as smoothly. There had been contractual improvements but they’d been won in hard-fought battles including, in some cases, strike votes. In November 1954, ownership of the paper passed from the late Alanson C. Deuel to the openly anti-union Gannett Co. of Rochester, and contract talks began to drag as the pay gap between Niagara Falls and Buffalo widened.
The Guild won an NLRB election, but many considered it the beginning of the end for the Falls unit, a dilution of Guild bargaining strength. Years of declining morale and constant struggle followed.
On a brighter note, the unit’s expansion was a least well covered; in February, 1954 the Guild newspaper, which had itself faltered, was reborn as the Frontier Reporter to signify the added jurisdiction.
Both newspaper and Guild moved in 1955 from the Root Building on West Chippewa Street, the union’s home since 1953, to the Andrews Building at Court and Pearl. 1955 also brought the first Buffalo Evening News pension plan.
By January, 1957, the News unit was eyeing pay scales at the Courier and wondering why the two didn’t match. Negotiating bulletins introduced the use of “A.H.K.” for Editor Alfred H. Kirchhofer, who had always been referred to before as “he,” no further identification being deemed necessary. And the two-year contract signed that year won more wage and benefit increases, including a file addendum noting Blue Cross and Blue Shield coverage for the first time.
1962 was a big year for the Buffalo Guild. Now 435 members strong, Local 26 played host to the American Newspaper Guild International Convention, a five-day conference at the Statler Hilton. Tom Kelly served as general convention chairman, and a large committee with representatives from the Buffalo Evening News, Courier Express, Tonawanda News and Niagara Falls Gazette welcomed 229 delegates from 69 locals, including current TNG International chairman Harry S. Culver, who drove here from Oklahoma with his wife, three kids and ’53 Ford with 130,000 miles on the odometer.
On May 13, 1967, the long and bitter struggles in the Falls finally took their toll; the Guild withdrew as bargaining agent, and the Gazette Guild unit came to an end.
There were contract gains at other units, though. Blue Cross-Blue Shield coverage was written into the News contract, along with death and jury-duty leave and the first floating holiday. News pension negotiations were handled by Thomas P. McMahon, a labor negotiator hired in 1967, and the resulting five-year pension pact included a 25 percent benefits increase plus disability, insurance and other gains. Also, in 1967, Local 26 moved its office to 257 Elmwood Ave.
In 1969, the benchmark reporter salary at the News and Courier topped the $200 mark for the first time. And an organizing drive was launched at the News that September to bring district circulation managers into the Guild.
The DMs’ attempts to negotiate as a company union had failed, and early 1970 brought meetings with Guild representatives. A card-signing campaign was launched during the summer, and the effort led by George Sullivan and Richard Schwede signed on 25 of the 36 DMs.
At the consent election on Sept. 17, all 36 DMs voted and the 25 who had signed Guild cards gave the Guild a 25-11 victory. The effort to broaden Guild coverage at The News would continue, with the inside circulation and classified advertising departments joining the union in the early 1970s.
1970 also brought a traumatic moment for every union at the News, a strike by the Independent Hoppers Association of Western New York. Local 26’s executive board voted to urge support, but left the decision on whether to cross the picket lines up to individual Guild members.
More than half the Guild, 110 members, chose not to cross, and so did 500 craft union members. The first strike in the News’ history lasted five days.
By the early 1970s, the Guild had begun measuring its commitment to journalism as well as improving the lots of workers. There were standing committees on ethics and on human rights, with an emphasis on minority hiring and training. And the Guild had intervened in legal action to protect reporters’ rights to keep information confidential. There had been a “Young Turks” movement in 1970, with most of the Buffalo Evening News’ young reporters determined to change the shape of journalism in Western New York. Amid flurries of revolutionary meetings and bulletin-board notes, the “reporters rebellion” developed a seven-point manifesto calling for a training program for new reporters, greater effort to recruit minority employees and cover minority community news, the right to be treated as professionals in the newsroom, more investigative and depth reporting, a revised stylebook, the right to avoid “puff pieces” promoting products advertising in special sections, and protection for “pencil-fix tampering” with copy.
In April 1973, the News moved from its old home at Main and Seneca to a new building at Washington and Scott, adjoining the paper’s printing plant.
The contract hammered out that year contained an “Editorial Standards” article including the right of by-line refusal. It also raised the reporter benchmark salary to $331.25 on Jan. 1, 1974 and to $351.80 on Jan. 1, 1975, then added a cost of living hike on April 1, 1975. To forestall lay-offs proposed by management, the Courier unit voted to waive the negotiated pay hikes, pending audits of the company’s books. There was heated debate in the union, but the waiver agreement was approved 63-29 by the Local with only five News unit members casting votes. The issue reflected economic difficulties at the morning paper, where management had asked all unions to forego wage increases.
Based on the 1975 contracts, the Courier and the News were tied for 11th place on TNG’s wage ranking of 163 newspapers in the nation. Only papers in Washington, D.C., New York City, St. Louis and the San Francisco-Oakland area had higher reporter/photographer top minimums.
Dominating all the Guild activity, though, was a change in the newspaper wars in Buffalo. Early in the year, the Butler family sold the News to a corporation controlled by Warren Buffett.
Later that year, the war with the Courier-Express went head-to-head with word that the paper’s Saturday edition would switch from evening to morning publication and a new Sunday edition would be launched.
At the Courier, there were contract problems. Guild members twice voted down a contract in March before voicing approval in April of a pact that virtually duplicated the News contract, bringing the benchmark to $428.60 by Nov. 1, 1978 and adding improved dental coverage and a parity raise for DMs. The earlier rejections were linked to a heavy circulation department turn-out and continuing problems over job jurisdiction and minimum hours in that department.
There were now-familiar wage hike deferrals, though, and in August 1977 the Frontier Reporter carried a telling headline: “Courier Turns Corner; Now Going Wrong Way.”
Present-day problems almost overwhelmed a hint of the future: On Aug. 8, 1977, the Tonawanda News went from typewriters to video display terminals, the first such technological change for a Local 26 paper.
Legal matters again dominated the start of 1978, with the NLRB putting the Guild on trial and the Local considering and then rejecting a motion to get involved in anti-trust litigation involving the Courier and News. A second $1.2 million lawsuit filed against the Local by a former Courier temporary copy editor didn’t help, and TNG came to the Local’s aid with $1,250 per month to offset legal costs.
In 1979, the Local’s 1979-80 budget topped the $200,000 mark, with expansion and contract negotiations on the agenda.
On April 23 the Guild filed a petition to organize non-editorial departments, mostly advertising, at the Tonawanda News and its Kenmore Record Advertiser. In June, an NLRB election victory added 24 names to the TN unit roster, boosting unit membership to 42 and Local membership to 660. The Local’s rolls had grown from 540 members in early 1977 and would reach 706, a 30 percent expansion, by November 1979.
In 1980, Teamsters Local 449 voted to strike The Buffalo News, and the strike began at 6 a.m. the next day. News management closed the paper down at 5 p.m. the same day, but continuing negotiations, aided by Local 26 officers, brought a re-opening the following mid-day and some 300 Guild members returned from their temporary “lay-off” on Dec. 4. Each received $50 in strike benefits, and the Local shelled out $10,234.49.
In 1981, the Courier unit agreed to a reorganization of the paper’s circulation department and the newsroom saw controversy over charges of age bias, with “over-40” staffers protesting policy changes favoring younger staffers with less seniority and local experience.
The Guild itself was in financial trouble, with no surplus and a Defense Fund that was a bit short of constitutional requirements. Guild members also would soon learn that the secretary hired back in 1962 had siphoned off about $16,000 in Guild funds; there was a federal probe, insurance paid the losses and a new secretary was soon hired.
At the News, the competition for survival in an economy that couldn’t support two daily newspapers colored contract talks. Members agreed to pension contract concessions requested by News management, trading some of their future income for present-day hopes of survival; a two-year contract called for no raise at all in the first year, and a hike from the 1981 level of $429.59 to $535.64 on May 1, 1983.
It was worse at the Courier. Buffalo’s morning newspaper, after weeks of trauma, wrote “30” to its long and colorful history on Sept. 19, 1982.
There was a painful period of recovery. The News quickly launched a Sunrise morning edition, and several Courier Guild members joined the News staff; others found job on other papers, or spent their time sending out resumes.
In April, an organizing drive in the News advertising department led to a June 3 NLRB election for representation in the Accounting, Bookkeeping and Credit Department. The Guild won 23-15.
In 1984, the Local approved affiliation with the Buffalo Council of the AFL-CIO and preparations began once again for the process of collective bargaining. The News itself had turned the corner and was headed in the right direction; mounting losses had been turned into record profits, and the Guild began looking for a share of the good fortune.
March 20, 1984, brought celebration and anniversary cakes to Guild departments at The News as the union marked its golden jubilee. Contract talks continued through the May 1 expiration date, but on May 12 the Guild gathered at a new downtown hotel, the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, to commemorate a half century of struggle and progress.
Through the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Guild worked to regain ground lost during the battle between the area’s two major dailies and to win improvements in the workplace. One of the pension caps was eliminated in 1993, and the transition to newer technology was eased with contract language covering ergonomic standards for Guild departments at The News.
With the help of community activists, the Guild also played a key role in getting The News to adopt an Affirmative Action plan.
The 1990s also brought sometimes diverse negotiations for multi-year contracts, as Guild officers learned a tougher style of bargaining in response to the continued shift from family-owned to corporate management tactics. The local managed to win such major victories as keeping fully employer-paid health insurance despite an eight-year campaign by The News to shift part of its costs to workers.
The union also won a progressive family leave policy and expanded a rare extended sick-leave policy to include even more workers. News management’s “Year of Circulation” in 1994 also triggered a year of work conflicts and an unusually high number of grievances for the year after a contract settlement, all of which were negotiated to settlement without resort to expensive arbitration.
The Guild also worked hard in 1994 and 1995 to heal internal rifts that had developed during tough negotiations for a multi-year contract, and succeeded in bolstering both its steward training program and uniting action across Editorial, Classified, Inside Circulation, Outside Circulation, ABC and a newly-added Customer Service union unit lines. More than 40 Guild members took part in a new type of “mutual gains” bargaining that ended a major dispute over the content and style of “advertorial” supplements produced by the ad departments, with a win-win solution acceptable to both sides. A new local Strategic Plan was crafted, and investment strategies were restructured to increase Defense Fund growth. Numbers of newsroom staffers also joined a Guild outreach program to increase journalism instruction and school newspaper mentoring in city schools, and especially with minority students.
The Guild gained depth and clout nationwide in 1995 as The Newspaper Guild voted to affiliate with the Communication Workers of America, with the head of the Buffalo delegation, local president Mike Vogel, voicing the first floor support for the plan at the TNG international convention in Boston.
There was a major disappointment in 1996, as the gradual erosion of Guild strength eventually led to voluntary decertification of the local’s Tonawanda News unit in early September. The decertification petition was filed by the unit’s last remaining member, Carl LaFountain, and the Guild formally told the National Labor Relations Board it was disclaiming interest in the paper to circumvent the requirement for a decertification election. The unit demise ended four years of work under posted conditions during a contract negotiation impasse.
The year also brought tough negotiations at The Buffalo News, leading to the first six-year contract in the local’s history. The 1996-2002 contract pushed the benchmark reporter’s top-step wage group over $1,000 a week in 2000. A negotiated flexible benefits plan launched in 1994, NewsFlex, was continued as a negotiated health and insurance package. A heated dispute over the increased use of stringers and free-lance writers was settled with the addition of part-time Guild-covered reportorial positions, primarily in the suburbs, and a restructuring in the Niagara Bureau. As The News moved onto the Internet with an electronic version of the paper, the Guild also began asserting its right to jurisdiction over material published in that format as well, despite adamant company opposition.
A bit of post-contract internal turmoil followed the departure of long-time local service representative Marian Needham, who had turned the job of secretary into a far more executive and administrative position, to accept a post with the parent international Guild. Progress continued as job and office relocation problems were worked out, however. A number of grievances approved for arbitration were settled, the Guild joined a credit union, the Buffalo Metropolitan Federal Credit Union, to offer expanded services to members. It also launched its own employee assistance referral program, with specially trained Guild members helping fellow members work out non-work problems, and it decided on a new focus on pension improvements as a major thrust of its 2002 bargaining.
As that bargaining began to take shape early in the year, the local also unveiled its own World Wide Web site as an added channel of communications both with its members and with the public. A more aggressive public campaign to build support for its issues was launched as well, with informational picketing and leafleting at News-sponsored public events.
Among the contract gains won in 2002 were a 6 percent raise over the three years of the contract, a one-time bonus for Guild members, the retention of company-paid health insurance, and improvements to the pension plan including a raise in the pension “cap” that had been instituted during the newspaper war of the early 1980s and raised only once before, in 1993.
In 2004, the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, which had occupied two different suites in an office building across Delaware Avenue from the Hotel Statler over several years, made a major moved to the historic but newly-renovated Larkin Terminal Building – renamed Larkin at Exchange – on the city’s East Side.
That office became headquarters for the 2005 contract campaign, which started with a company move to split the union by concentrating its demands on a single unit, the District Managers. The News pushed hard for an end to seniority bidding for service districts, arguing that it needed the power to determine such assignments in order to counter circulation losses – although the entire print newspaper industry, experiencing cultural changes in reading and research habits in the age of the Internet, was experiencing such declines. The union countered strongly that other company practices, including discount policies, played major roles in the circulation problems.
On Nov. 30, 2005, following eight months of negotiations, the Guild and The News signed a new, three-year deal that achieved the Guild’s dominant goal: the preservation of employer-paid health insurance for all full-time members and many part-time members.
The contract also called for an average annual salary increase of two percent a year, incentive bonuses for Classified Ad workers and signing bonuses.
In exchange, The News insisted on a memorandum of agreement allowing the newspaper to make significant changes in Circulation, including a memorandum of agreement outlining work responsibilities of District Managers. Also included were changes in the seniority-based bidding for DM work assignments.
As 2006 ended, The News, which had frozen the Guild out of its online presence, realized that policy had to change and entered into negotiations with the Guild.
The negotiations, led by Editorial’s Jim Heaney and Henry Davis, ended in an agreement unanimously approved by the local’s membership on Jan. 24, 2007.
The agreement allowed for participation in The News’ online products by members in Editorial and Classified Advertising.
In the spirit of the successful negotiations that led to the online agreement, the Guild and The News started bargaining for an extension of their collective bargaining agreement more than a year before its scheduled end date in July 31, 2008.
Both sides agreed to limit both their agendas and the length of time that would be spent bargaining. The result was agreement on a contract extension that saw Guild negotiators once again find creative means to ensure members would retain a coveted benefit- employer-paid health insurance premiums.
Guild members agreed to switch to a single-insurer, experience-rated plan. The News’ savings from instituting this plan six months before the contract was set to expire was enough to fund members’ health insurance premiums through 2010.
Members also received modest raises at a time when Guilds elsewhere were being forced into accepting regressive contracts. Shortly after that deal was sealed, The News, like every other newspaper in the country, began to feel the financial pressures of the worst recession in decades.
The result was a formal notification in February, 2009 of the company’s intention to lay off Guild members. The Guild responded by asking to meet with News executives as part of an effort to mitigate the job cuts.
By the time the clock stopped ticking a few weeks later, more than 45 Guild members, many of them district managers, had walked out the door. Some by choice. Some involuntarily.
They left as part of $2.9 million in cost cutting by The News, one aspect of a larger companywide plan for putting the paper on sound financial footing.
In the end, about 37 people took buyouts, most of them involuntary. Another nine Guild members were laid off. The Guild saved a total of six positions targeted for elimination.
Rank-and-file Guild members continued their long history of workplace actions by visibly showing their support for the bargaining committee and its mission.
Those shows of solidarity ranged from stickers and red balloons to a one-minute moment of silence in the workplace.
Now more than 70 years have passed since that formative vote in the old Hotel Statler, and the Guild has more depth and more strength than ever before. It has been a long and sometimes tough ride – but Heywood Broun and the reporters he once inspired in Buffalo can be proud of that journey.