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Journalists Unite!

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“Actions” have taken place at other bureaus, including picketing last month in Washington, D.C. A protest is planned for the company’s annual meeting on April 21, in the American Express building next door to Dow Jones’s headquarters, when shareholders will vote on a union proposal that the company’s chairman and chief executive positions be separated. A strike committee has formed.

“It’s a major cultural shock,” says Bernie Lunzer, a Newspaper Guild national rep. “In many ways, I see them crystallizing as a bona fide union, as opposed to looking at it as a sort of professional association.”

The Journal is facing the radicalization of its careerist, go-getter newsroom.

I had no time for the union until last fall,” says Browning, who worked at the Journal for 25 years before he started getting quoted in the media columns in the Post and the Observer.

In that, he wasn’t different from most reporters there. “I’m the most conservative Republican reporter in the newsroom,” says Wall Street reporter Charles Gasparino, known for his son-of-an-ironworker persona. “For me to join a union, they had to do something that I believed stepped so far over the line that I had to get involved.”

Dow Jones has been a journalist-friendly place. The New York Times might pay more, but the Journal’s benefits were better. The Independent Association of Publisher’s Employees was founded in 1937 as an in-house union. Historically, it hasn’t done much. It only has one full-time employee, and dues are too low for there to be a strike fund (and anyway, there’s never been a strike). In the nineties it became a local of the Newspaper Guild.

There’s always been a bit of a class rift in IAPE. When negotiations started last spring, nobody from the Journal was on the bargaining committee. “Nobody volunteered. It’s a lot of time; it’s a lot of going down to South Brunswick,” says “Marketplace” reporter Alex Frangos. So they were all surprised when the contract terms were sent around on November 20. Browning, whose wife had had breast cancer and who, as a consequence, had become sensitized to the necessity of having affordable and flexible health-care benefits, was incensed.

“He came out of nowhere,” said Frangos, and rallied the newsroom to fight it. “He’s not a rabble-rouser. He’s like the Roman general Cincinnatus, a humble farmer called to arms.”

Browning hatched the idea of telling the union’s board of directors the newsroom didn’t like the deal they were offered. So a group of “somewhat well-paid people with clothes from Barneys,” as one reporter who was there put it, took the train on December 6, a snowy Saturday, to a windowless rent-a-conference-room in New Brunswick to fight it. The 22-member board—many with blue-collar jobs—“were a little skeptical of us at first,” says Frangos, who said they had to “assert” themselves a bit to be able to speak.

“It was a real Manhattan-versus-Queens thing,” said an observer. “One woman had a New York Jets warm-up jacket.”

The newsroom hadn’t always followed through in the past with their promises to back the union. “The board members said, ‘Are you sure? Are you totally committed?’ ” said Frangos. “ ‘We can’t afford to reject this contract if you aren’t.’ ”

Negotiations resumed with Browning and Gasparino on the bargaining committee. So far, the company hasn’t budged much in terms of what it says it can afford, although Browning said it claimed “flexibility on some issues” at the April 14 session.

It’s hard to argue that the Journal is hurting journalistically. It won two Pulitzers this year, and in this time of Martha scandals and Tyco trials, it’s as good as it gets. But in the end this is about recruitment and retention. How important are the more experienced (and expensive) reporters? How do you keep reporters filing multiple times a day for the Website and world editions when they think they’re being taken advantage of?

There’s some feeling on the floor that the paper has become a poaching ground: Last week, Gasparino took an offer from Newsweek. The Times already stole health-care reporter Gardiner Harris, “Weekend Journal” editor Amy Virshup, and real-estate reporter Motoko Rich in the past year. More ominously, this winter, the Times hired popular Journal associate managing editor Larry Ingrassia to remake its business coverage. Some at the Journal are waiting for the call.


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