How the Los Angeles Times went from union-busting to media role model

Resistance to deep cutbacks have brought about change to the 137-year-old paper.


California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West. 

Harrison Gray Otis, the first publisher of the Los Angeles Times (known as the Los Angeles Daily Times in the 1880s), was widely known for his combative conservative politics and anti-labor views. The Ohio-born Republican and Civil War veteran, whose legendary motto was “You’re either with me or against me,” saw labor organizing as an obstacle to the success of his corporate holdings — and his adoptive city.

In 1910, Otis’ anti-union editorials and proclamations made him a highly visible target. In the early morning hours of an October day, a dynamite explosion destroyed about half of the paper’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Twenty-one people were killed in the explosion and fire, including linotypers, telegraph operators and engravers.

The next morning’s headline exclaimed: “Unionist bombs wreck the Times.”

“I wanted the whole building to go to hell,” said J.B. McNamara, a member of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, which helped orchestrate more than 100 bombings targeting anti-union leaders across the country. “I am sorry so many people were killed. I hoped to get Gen. Otis.”

The majority of the LA Times’ 500 staff members have come together to fight for a masthead that reflects the diversity of LA itself.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Today, 137 years after the paper’s founding, its employees have embraced the very philosophy that Otis fought so bitterly: Unionization. Cutbacks over the past two decades have emptied the newsroom, threatening the survival of one of the country’s most widely read legacy papers. The push for unionization could save reporters’ jobs, yes, but backers also hope it’ll help the paper better serve its city at a time of widespread declines in local news coverage.

“For the past 10 years, it’s been the workers, not the owners, who are preserving the legacy of the Los Angeles Times,” the paper’s national reporter, Matt Pearce, told the Columbia Journalism Review, a few months before the union was voted in. “We’re the dominant publication in the most populous, wealthiest state in the country, one that is driving the direction of the country in many ways.”

The city of Los Angeles was defined by its “open shops” — nonunionized workplaces — during the early part of the 20th century, with many crediting them for the fast growth and success of local industries, from manufacturing to film. The Los Angeles Times thrived, too: By 1995, the paper had won its 20th Pulitzer Prize. But as the new millennium dawned, it became clear that the old bonanza years were over. Growth slowed, and the paper’s staff shrank. In 2000, the LA Times announced its sale to media conglomerate Tribune Co. In response, the staff organized for job security and better pay; between 1990 and 2002, journalists tried to start a union six different times.

Longstanding resentments between reporters and the paper’s managers and owners fed the push for unionization. A rotating door of editors tried to reshape the newsroom even as owners announced hiring freezes and staff cuts. Then, in December 2017, Michael Ferro, the largest shareholder of Tronc, the former Tribune Co., gave himself a payout of $5 million — which would have covered a year’s worth of salaries for more than 60 journalists — even as Tronc announced a new wave of layoffs. The much-publicized payout sent a clear signal that the constant downsizing had less to do with declines in revenue than with maximizing profits and keeping shareholders happy.

“Last year was the annus horribilis of the media industry here,” Carolina Miranda, co-chair of the LA Times Guild and a staff writer focused on the arts, told me. “The LA Times was under fire from Tronc, and the LA Weekly got sold and vaporized from one day to the next.” All this left scars on the city: “How do you have a major city function without a significant news organization covering it, and not just holding institutions accountable, but also doing the profiles and social critiques that make for a lively urban center?” she said.

So, for over a year, the majority of the LA Times’ 500 staff members came together to fight for the paper’s health as well as their own needs: job protections, better wages and wage equity for women and journalists of color — who were underpaid by thousands of dollars a year — along with a masthead that reflected the diversity of LA itself.

Last Jan. 4, 85 percent of the newsroom voted to form a union, and on June 18, Tronc sold the paper to Patrick Soon-Shiong, inventor of the cancer drug Abraxane and a philanthropist worth about $6.8 billion. Soon-Shiong, who described the paper as “a shadow of its former self,” went on to hire more than two dozen new staffers, a move that even the union-hating Otis may well have supported.

The paper’s sale and the move to unionize represent important wins during a time of ever-tighter deadlines and a range of new challenges, with the White House loudly denouncing journalists as the “enemy of the people.” The LA Times journalists join the ranks of other unionized media, including The New York Times, Thomson Reuters, Time Inc. and The Washington Post. Other newsrooms from Wyoming and Montana to New York are in the middle of their own unionization fights.

And while the old newspaper glory days may be a thing of the past, reporters remain determined to do their jobs and keep the public informed. “Now we need to do a much better job communicating to readers what we do and what we need to serve them well,” said Miranda. “We really need to speak up.”  

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.

High Country News Classifieds