The invitation came unexpectedly.
His colleague in the business section, who he respected but didn’t work with closely or know well, asked him to go to lunch, and they didn’t have a casual-lunch-invite-anytime kind of relationship.
He said yes, but inside the yes was a question mark: why were they going to lunch together at all?
He didn’t know. So he went to find out.
Lunch was tacos.
(They live in Los Angeles, so it was probably redundant to even say that.)
Partway through lunch, the business reporter said, “Matt, you’re becoming a very respected member of the newsroom. We’re thinking of forming a union. Are you in or out?”
“I was flattered at first,” Pearce told me, “but I later figured out that was something she said to everyone who got approached. It was kind of part of her sales pitch.”
Matt Pearce, who has worked at the Los Angeles Times since 2012, didn’t grow up in a union family, and felt only mild interest in taking part in the unionizing effort.
But he agreed to attend meetings, which initially were held in secret, since they were advised to avoid tipping their hand, in case the corporate executives began to lawyer up.
Pearce would note his upcoming union meetings as “book club” in his iPhone calendar, just in case it ever fell into someone else’s hands.
Other colleagues were even more circumspect: There were a few who would list the union-building meetings as simply “carnitas.”
“Carnitas?” I repeated.
“Yeah. You know, the food.”
“Right,” I said.
(Again: Los Angeles.)
The turning point for Pearce came a few meetings in. By then the organizing committee had amassed a fairly large number of interested folks, some three dozen, and another colleague, a younger Persian woman, spoke up.
“The gist of what she said,” said Pearce, “was that she didn’t want all the younger folks and people of color to have to be the meat shield, leading the charge for the rest of us. And something about that phrase, meat shield, just really stuck with me.”
I play Dungeons and Dragons, and Pearce doesn’t (…yet), so I asked him if he knew the D&D meaning of the phrase, and I then proceeded to nerdsplain to him a protracted and totally unasked-for description of what meat shields do in battle.
In case you also are not playing D&D (… yet): Meat shields, also known as tanks, are your brawny fighter-character types, and their role is to stand on the front line and absorb enemy damage, because they have high enough hit points to be good at both delivering and receiving attacks.
Pearce described how he’d instantly gotten on board with the idea of using his position of privilege — young, white, male — to be the newsroom’s tank, to be a force for good.
And as far as actually being a meat shield?
“That effectively is a very good analogy for what the process is like.”
The LA Times, which was historically anti-union, was one of the last large, legacy newsrooms in the U.S. that hadn’t yet unionized. So in a way, they were a hold-out.
There were holdouts within the newsroom, too — notably, the photography department — but Pearce said it was interesting how the unionizing process functions a bit like a political campaign: whipping votes, the union running its propaganda, and the company running its propaganda, too.
“The body chemistry of the workplace actually changes, because you’re introducing this whole new enzyme that really shifts everything energetically,” Pearce said.
“I guess I would call that the sniffly nose of the body politic.”
He said they were aided by the fact that they had been owned by a large corporate chain that had branded itself the starkly unmelodious Tronc, now reverted to their original brand, Tribune Publishing, which thank god because: "Hello, thank you for calling Tronc, how may I direct your call?” Nowhere good, I’m guessing.
(Pearce didn’t come right out and say Tronc was the Mucinex of the equation and complete his sniffly nose metaphor from above, but I feel confident in assuming we were both thinking it. all right. send tweet.)
Okay, look, I’m sorry to bring it back to D&D on y’all once again, but I just have to: Tronc could literally be the name of an ogre or a half-orc in any D&D campaign anywhere in the multiverse.
I mean, Tronc, as like the name of an evil, cannibalistic ogre terrorizing a small village, would not even be a stretch.
So I know what he means when he says they were inadvertently aided by their opponent.
I believe I speak for all of us, including, perhaps, some Tronc executives, when I say: for my next turn, I’d like to cast Banishment on Tronc.
But Tronc had other points against it than just its clunky, ogresque name.
(Unfortunately, it seems “ogresque” isn’t a word.) (…YET.)
Tronc, as a large-scale media conglomerate, had owners who seemed concerned more with cashflow and dividends than with immersing in stories about—and the interests of—the communities they’re purported to represent.
“They’re owned by these big corporate companies, which in turn are owned by private equity firms and hedge funds.”
When the vote is called about whether or not to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board turns up to call the vote, with a simple cardboard box into which eligible voters stick slips of paper with “yes” or “no” written on them.
At the same time the organizing committee was calling the vote to unionize, Tronc wanted to make a round of layoffs, but the union came into effect in time — at the precise, exact time, in fact—to make it impossible for them to proceed with their layoffs.
So that was good timing.
(Solid initiative roll! The ogre takes 45 points of damage!)
I realize the D&D references are only really going to play with a handful of readers, but, and here I will channel Stephen Colbert: I don’t care.
Tronc sold the Times (along with the San Diego Union-Tribune and a number of smaller papers) to Patrick Soon-Shiong, a South-African born businessman and entrepreneur who was a shareholder at Tronc.
“He’s a local guy, he’s philanthropically motivated, he saves a lot of hospitals. He worked as a newspaper delivery boy before he went to med school and lived under apartheid. He told us that his interest in journalism grew there, as he saw the effect local journalism could have.”
And so, the vibe under their new owner was very different.
Lewis D’Vorkin, who had had a long career at Forbes, came on as editor-in-chief but only lasted three months at the Times. Disney did a blackout on the Times’ media critics because they hadn’t liked a piece of coverage, and reporters felt D’Vorkin didn’t have their backs and wasn’t standing up to the folks at Disney. So there had been a perception, borne out, that he might be friendly to big business.
He called an all-hands meeting to discuss that, and reporters called him to account about why the full story wasn’t being told.
A recording was made of that meeting, and it was sent to the New York Times, who wrote a story about it.
A few days later, another all-hands meeting was called where D’Vorkin read out portions of the California criminal code relating to wiretapping, which some reporters interpreted as a threat.
That meeting too was recorded and sent to NPR, who did a story about it.
D’Vorkin had been hired by a new publisher, Ross Levinsohn, who also came under a fair amount of controversy, as he was being investigated for sexual misconduct by NPR. The day after the NPR story was published, the union election vote was set to be counted.
Levinsohn had gone to an investors’ conference the day before the vote count occurred (the votes had been cast, but the public reveal was set to happen the next day). And he showed a slide about how he wants to change the traditional newsroom into a Forbes-style newsmill.
“So there was this intense, high drama,” Pearce said. “It was a dramatic day for a lot of reasons. The union stuff felt technicolor, whereas journalism by contrast was fairly black-and-white.”
Pearce said it’s an exciting and somewhat wild moment when the votes are finally counted; everyone keeping track of each individual vote on their legal pads, everyone aware of the threshold needed to cross, and ticking down each vote in the yes or no column.
But then: The win was overwhelming, with 85% of voters in favor of unionizing.
All told, the conversations toward the election of the guild took about a year and a half. Then, the bargaining talks, wherein the guild discussed its wants with the newsroom representatives, took another year. (The Times just ran a story about that outcome, in October 2019.)
The bargaining committee, though it had a lot of wins, didn’t get everything it wanted.
But wages was a big win. The bargaining committee had created a scale of pay minimums, which effectively lifted the bottom. When a newsroom unionizes, the wage gap between the top and bottom narrows.
“We also got a just-cause clause, so that means you can’t fire someone without a reason. And you know, in this business, you’re never not aware that you might be one tweet away from getting fired. As someone who tweets a lot, I find the idea of due process attractive.”
The News Guild, which is the national labor union that represents journalists and media professionals, has had a series of other high-profile wins lately, though the Times was probably the biggest. But they’ve won every election they’ve gone for over the last three years. Pearce was on hand for the Arizona Republic election this year, and has given an assist in several others.
He said the biggest takeaways for him during the unionizing process: 1. the importance and strength of collective power, 2. the importance of the business side of the industry (“It’s made me a better corporate citizen, not in that crappy way but in, like, a cool way,”) and 3. the history of union activity in the United States, and how that still manifests and echoes in our socio-political scene today.
No word yet on whether he’s joined a D&D campaign yet, but I remain optimistic.
Matt Pearce, who covers the 2020 election for the LA Times, is a vice-chair of the LA Times guild, a musician, and a former chaos muppet.