Former director of collective bargaining speaks out

Melissa Nelson

Melissa Nelson

Melissa Nelson, a member of The NewsGuild staff for 11 years, retired in April 2018 as TNG’s Director of Collective Bargaining.

If I were eligible to vote in the election for TNG-CWA president, I would mark my ballot for Jon Schleuss. That may come as a surprise to many folks reading these words. I was, after all, the NewsGuild’s director of collective bargaining prior to my retirement last year, and had spent more than three decades in the trenches of Guild activism. During my tenure with TNG, I worked closely and well with Bernie Lunzer. It won’t come as a surprise to those who know both of us that I found him to be a good, caring person with a warm heart, and came to consider him a friend.

However, what is at stake in this election transcends personality and friendship. The question before the membership is which of the candidates, Bernie or Jon, is best able to lead and guide the NewsGuild through a transformation from what was to what can be.

Frankly, my initial reaction to Jon’s candidacy, back when he was nominated in January, ranged from incredulous disbelief to cynical skepticism. He is the same age as my youngest child, and the ink on his membership card had barely dried. Then I got to know him, and those trepidations began to disappear.

Early in his campaign Jon contacted me and asked if I would explain TNG’s approach to collective bargaining. I described the history of the program I had administered and briefly outlined the various components, all of which have provided a strong framework for NewsGuild contracts for more than eighty years. I thought that would be the end of it. I was wrong.

Jon continued the communication with question after question. His appetite for learning how the Guild operates is insatiable. It became clear to me that Jon has spent a great deal of his time on outreach. He has talked with every Guild activist and leader he could, including those who support him and those who don’t.

During a number of our subsequent conversations I was both surprised and impressed when Jon raised strategy questions about specific bargaining issues that came up in his contacts with Guild locals.

That is not to say that a few months of telephone tutorials equate to years of hands on union leadership experience. It does not. Yet, it gave me a much clearer picture of this candidate than the one that emerges from his resume.

From my exchanges with Jon, I have noted an instinct for leadership that reflects a level of wisdom far beyond his years. I recognize in him someone who actively listens to members; has an intuitive ability to connect; looks for ways to pull them into the process of union building; and has a strong level of commitment, care and concern for the rank and file membership. 

Most importantly, I have found Jon to be someone who is well aware of what he doesn’t know, where his shortcomings lie, and is almost obsessive about filling that void.

There is a specific audience I am trying to reach with this endorsement. Obviously, it’s not the one that believes the incumbent president is doing a bang-up job and deserves one last term before retirement. From that perspective it only makes sense to vote for Bernie.

No, the people I am writing this for are the many local officers, staffers, and activists who reached out to me day after day over the last few years before I retired, to share their deep concerns about this union’s lack of direction and lack of vision, under an ineffective and unresponsive leadership.

Most of them had a deep affection for Bernie, but they were frustrated by what they saw as serious deficiencies in his managerial and leadership style. He wasn’t accessible to them. There was a lack of focus and follow through.

As the newspaper and media crisis has escalated, and many shrinking locals have lost staff and other resources, there has been no leadership at the top working to mitigate those losses through restructuring or resource sharing. Time and time again, these folks referred to TNG’s presidency as a “black hole”. As much as they cared for Bernie personally, they couldn’t count on him to be there for them when careers and contracts were on the line.

I want the readers of this endorsement to understand that it is my firm belief that Jon Schleuss has the leadership skills to fill that black hole. He listens. He focuses. He responds. He follows through. Those are the same attributes that landed this union’s long-held impossible dream last year when Jon and his fellow organizers brought Los Angeles Times journalists into the NewsGuild. 

Experience is inarguably important. Yet, its value is diminished when it goes unchanneled by those who are inaccessible, unresponsive and unable to effectively manage and lead.

I have come to know Jon as a natural leader who thrives on engagement as a means of increasing the union’s power and effectiveness. Not coincidentally his understanding of both the NewsGuild’s and CWA’s inner workings has grown exponentially over the course of his campaign.

Jon is a respected journalist, is eager to learn, and is blessed with unflagging good humor. I have no doubt that what he lacks in bargaining experience will be quickly remedied by on-the-job learning. I, for one, have promised to be there for him to help guide that process. 

At this incredibly transformative moment in the NewsGuild’s 86-year-old journey, Jon Schleuss is the right person to lead this union into the future.

Melissa Nelson

Retired TNG-CWA Director of Collective Bargaining

Melissa Nelson