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
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -