Why isn’t Bernie Lunzer opposing the Gannett-Gatehouse merger?

UPDATE: After this post went live, Lunzer released a statement opposing the deal. We are grateful to see him make this change and hope he will not make the same mistakes of neutrality in any future deals.

When word leaked about the Gannett-Gatehouse merger in July, we (Emily Hopkins of the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star and Andrew Pantazi of the GateHouse-owned Florida Times-Union) joined our members from across both chains on phone calls with Bernie Lunzer, president of the NewsGuild.

Even before the disastrous terms of the deal were released, we knew the combination of the two largest newspaper chains in the country would be bad for our colleagues, bad for our communities and bad for business.

But as details emerged — $300 million in expected cuts, a financing deal destined for bankruptcy and no realistic plan for revenue growth — it became even clearer this deal is a nine-alarm dumpster fire.

Bernie Lunzer has failed our members and failed our industry.

The NewsGuild should have a plan for national mobilizing, public relations outreach and strategic partnerships with Gannett’s and GateHouse’s shareholders.

Instead, Lunzer adopted a strategy of appeasement. He promised GateHouse we will forego any shareholder actions, and he has stood idle as we wait for a consolidation that could destroy local journalism as we know it.

Why, after successful campaigns that fended off the likes of Digital First Media from a hostile takeover of Gannett and created leverage against GateHouse in previous deals, would Lunzer take such a position with this deal?

We believe it has to do with a deal struck by Lunzer and GateHouse. Two years ago, Lunzer gave up our right to urge shareholder actions. In exchange, all members got out of the deal was a 1 percent raise followed by a 1.75 percent raise the following year. That deal expires in December 2019 — just in time for GateHouse and Gannett to finish their deal.

Lunzer has refused to share the terms of his appeasement deal, saying it’s confidential. He has told us that this deal, which neither of us has been allowed to see, is still binding toward us, but we don’t even know what we are and are not allowed to do. Can we contact GateHouse or Gannett shareholders? Can we make shareholder proposals? Can we publicly oppose the deal? Lunzer says he can’t tell us, yet he expects us to sit quietly and do nothing.

Though he wouldn’t share the deal with us, he shared the confidentiality language. It clearly states he can share the deal with officers in order to ensure we comply.

But Lunzer’s top-down approach to union leadership means he won’t do that. He believes he can tell members to sit down and shut up, and we’ll listen.

In response to questions about this deal, which Lunzer directly negotiated, he shirked responsibility, pointing the finger at locals that voted to ratify the deal. He called leaders from those locals supportive. But at least one leader involved disputed that characterization, referring to the deal Lunzer negotiated as a “shit sandwich” that local leaders had little choice but to ratify.

This is hardly the first time Lunzer has blamed locals for his lack of strategy and foresight. While he is quick to take credit for our successes, he refuses to answer questions about failures.

Lunzer believes that we can maintain a positive relationship with Mike Reed, CEO of GateHouse’s parent company and the man who will lead the combined media chains. The same man who’s overseen a strategy of decimating newsrooms, including the Times-Union in Jacksonville. Within two years of GateHouse purchasing the paper, we saw the staff cut in half.

The firms behind the deal are also cause for grave concern. The acquisition is led by the Softbank-owned Fortress Investment Group and financed by Apollo Global Management. Little discussed about the hedge fund world is that many of them, including Fortress and Apollo, receive a significant percentage of their capital from pension funds. Indeed, Alden Global/Digital First is currently under investigation by the Department of Labor for investing the pension funds of the newspapers it has purchased in itself to finance its aggressive expansion strategy. 

Lunzer is wrong, and he is not prepared to lead us through this crisis.

Jon is proposing a new approach. To expand our power and membership, he believes we should:

  • Apply pressure through pension funds. As journalists, we must use our investigative abilities to aggressively make the case that pension funds should support a news industry that sustains a democratic society—not one of insider deals, layoffs and disinvestment. Other unions have built power this way.

  • Communicate clearly with members and leaders and empower them in bargaining. We must combine solidarity and inclusiveness in our common-employer bargaining. A top-down approach in which a union president gives away members’ rights does not work, but an approach that emphasizes coordinated collective action across all our units does.

  • Develop a long-term strategy to ensure our contracts at a given employer expire at the same time to increase our leverage, with the goal of master contracts at each large employer with local agreements.

  • Using SIF funds, hire additional organizers and strategic campaigners to implement the goals developed by our rank and file leaders. Over $3 million sits in a fund dedicated for organizing and strategic campaigns at the NewsGuild. Our union has the resources to bring our members together to protect jobs and journalism.

  • Go on the offensive by aggressively organizing new bargaining units in our large employers.

We must not accept corporate consolidation as an inevitability. The NewsGuild has a responsibility to fight this and any future deals like it.

The only thing stopping us is Lunzer.