Journalists at The Los Angeles Times voted overwhelmingly to form a union despite aggressive opposition from the paper’s management team, reversing more than a century of anti-union sentiment at one of the biggest newspapers in the country.
Shortly after the final vote count was announced on Friday, The Times’s parent company said that the newspaper’s publisher, Ross Levinsohn, was taking an unpaid leave of absence while a law firm investigated allegations of coarse workplace behavior while he was employed by other companies.
The newsroom vote took place on Jan. 4 and the final count showed that out of the 292 employees who cast ballots, 248 voted in favor of joining the NewsGuild, which represents 25,000 workers at news organizations across the United States. That ends a longstanding resistance to unionization that was shaped in part by a bombing at the paper’s headquarters by labor organizers in 1910.
The election, which took place at The Times headquarters in downtown Los Angeles and at its offices in Orange County, was believed to have been the first time journalists have held a union vote in the paper’s 136-year history. Forming a union required a simple majority of votes cast.
“As soon as the vote total was announced, there were more than a dozen L.A. Times union supporters who burst out in applause — there was a lot of hugging and handshaking,” said Matt Pearce, a national reporter for the paper and a member of the organizing committee. “This newsroom has been through so much and been down such a long road. It’s taken so much work and we’ve been through so much turbulence. This is a signal that we are standing together and ready to head forward for the future.”
The organizing effort was galvanized in part by an abrupt change to employees’ vacation policy in 2016 that effectively eliminated accrued vacation days. Organizers called for more competitive salaries, annual raises, equal pay for women and minorities and lower health premiums, among other goals.
The next step for the union will be to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with management.
“We respect the outcome of the election and look forward to productive conversations with union leadership as we move forward,” Tronc said in a statement. “We remain committed to ensuring that The Los Angeles Times is a leading source for news and information and to producing the award-winning journalism our readers rely on.”
The result was announced the day after the publication of a report by National Public Radio that Mr. Levinsohn had twice been a defendant in sexual harassment lawsuits while employed by other companies. After the article was published, the committee organizing the unionization effort called for Mr. Levinsohn to resign or be fired.
“It is critical that in any such circumstances we conduct a thorough review so that we have a full understanding of what happened,” Justin Dearborn, the chief executive of Tronc, said in the newsroom email announcing Mr. Levinsohn’s leave. “We will not hesitate to take further action, if appropriate, once the review is complete.”
Mr. Dearborn said that Mickie Rosen, the president of The Times, would take over Mr. Levinsohn’s duties during the investigation.
The NPR article about Mr. Levinsohn included allegations that he had used a derogatory term for gay men and rated the attractiveness of female colleagues. It also questioned whether he was fit to lead a newsroom in the time of #metoo protests and revealing media reports about sexual harassment.
NPR reported that Mr. Levinsohn called the allegations against him “lies” in a call to NPR’s chief executive, Jarl Mohn. Tronc then said in a statement that the company was investigating the claims against Mr. Levinsohn “so that we have a better understanding of what’s occurred.”
After the NPR article was posted online, members of the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee released a statement saying, in part, “We demand an independent investigation to examine how Levinsohn was hired given his documented history of misconduct; whether he acted inappropriately toward Times employees during his tenure as publisher; and how the company and board have responded previously to allegations of sexual misconduct by newspaper leaders.”
The newsroom also responded with a letter to the board of Tronc. The letter, signed by more than 180 Times journalists, said in part, “Levinsohn has lost credibility as the leader of one of the country’s top newspapers.”
Times journalists — who have withstood many years of management and ownership turmoil along with an industrywide downturn that has resulted in significant cost cuts and layoffs — have long professed dissatisfaction with their newsroom and corporate leaders.
Tronc, which is based in Chicago, ousted several top newsroom leaders, including Davan Maharaj, the publisher and editor, in August.
Some employees were optimistic that new leadership installed by Tronc, which publishes newspapers including The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun, would cultivate journalistic excellence while also returning The Times to financial strength.
The company appointed Mr. Levinsohn, a former Yahoo executive, as its publisher and named Lewis D’Vorkin, formerly the chief product officer at Forbes, editor in chief.
Many newsroom employees were frustrated with the way Mr. D’Vorkin handled a dispute between The Times and the Walt Disney Company soon after his arrival — and the union drive did not help to soothe relations between the journalists and their bosses.
In the weeks leading up to the union vote, Times management distributed fliers and sent emails that warned of the risks of unionization. At the same time, union organizers handed out signs and published information online about the compensation and perks received by Tronc executives.
Journalists at many of the country’s prominent news publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Reuters and The New York Times, are already represented by unions. The decision by Los Angeles Times workers comes amid a wave of organizing efforts that has swept through newsrooms at digital outlets, including Salon and Vox Media. Workers at several digital organizations, including HuffPost and Vice Media, are now union members.
But owners at other digital organizations have spoken against the need for their employees to form unions, including Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed’s founder. In October, employees of the New York news sites Gothamist and DNAinfo voted in favor of forming a union through a National Labor Relations Board formal vote. The websites’ owner, Joe Ricketts, then closed both of them.
Known for years as the “citadel of the open shop,” The Times, and the city it covered, has traditionally been against organized labor — a sentiment cultivated under Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, who acquired part ownership of the paper in 1884, and continued under his son-in-law, Harry Chandler.
“Los Angeles is the major city in America most resistant to the power of labor unions, not because it evolved naturally that way but because first Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and then Harry Chandler fought the unions in a constant ongoing struggle that was nothing short of war,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1979 media tome “The Powers That Be.”
The city, however, has become friendlier to unions in recent years.
“It’s a huge symbolic shift,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written about labor in Los Angeles. “The Times was literally the celebrated centerpiece of anti-unionism for such a long time. Turning that around is a big achievement.”
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