The journalists at the News Journal in Delaware were set to vote last month on whether to be represented by a union. Two-thirds of the almost 30 staffers had already voiced their support for joining the NewsGuild.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces labor laws, postponed all union elections for the last two weeks of March because officials didn’t believe the votes, which are typically conducted in person, could be carried out safely.
And when the NLRB restarted elections, it left the decision of how to conduct them to agency regional directors. That has effectively left the journalists at the Gannett-owned News Journal in Wilmington without a say in their working conditions during a crisis that has already resulted in widespread layoffs and furloughs in the media industry.
That wouldn’t be the case if the NLRB could conduct electronic elections. So, members of Congress, led by Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Michigan Democratic Rep. Andy Levin, are calling for the next coronavirus economic relief bill to make it possible for the NLRB to develop an electronic election process. Such a move could affect union elections for the foreseeable future, as the crisis drags on.
Making sure workers can exercise their right to join a union is especially urgent now, the lawmakers say, as workers deemed essential during the pandemic have sounded the alarm about life-threatening working conditions all over the country.
“Workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively with their employer are always important, but especially so when subjects like adequate health-care benefits, access to protective equipment, and pandemic safety protocols, are — quite literally — matters of life and death,” Fitzpatrick and Levin said in a letter to congressional leaders that was signed by 168 members.
Under federal labor law, most workers have a right to unionize — but it’s not easy: Employers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on anti-union campaigns every year and routinely face allegations of breaking the law by firing workers who try to unionize. There have been increased instances of these allegations during the pandemic. It’s difficult to prove a worker has been fired or retaliated against for unionizing. And when federal protections are enforced, those cases can take months or longer to settle.
Now, with the added hurdle of conducting union elections in the age of social distancing, advocates say the federal action could further weaken labor rights at a time when workers need them most. Timing is important when it comes to union elections. Unions have said that the longer it takes to get to an election, the longer an employer can try to dissuade workers from voting yes.
Fitzpatrick, of Bucks County, has branded himself as an independent-minded Republican on issues such as labor rights. He was one of two Republican congressmen last year to cosponsor the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a sweeping labor-reform bill, and has been a fixture at local labor rallies.
When the NLRB postponed elections, the union seeking to represent the News Journal staffers tried to conduct the election by mail ballot.
Regional directors across the country have been holding virtual hearings with employers and unions on a case-by-case basis. In many cases, these hearings have resulted in mail-ballot elections. But Richard P. Heller, the interim NLRB regional director overseeing the Philadelphia area, did not hold a hearing with Gannett and the NewsGuild.
Instead, he scheduled an in-person election for June.
In his decision on March 27, Heller said there would not be a mail-ballot election because Gannett did not agree to it.
A Gannett spokesperson said the NLRB had “inaccurately stated” the company’s position on mail ballots, and Gannett asked the NLRB for a correction.
“We did not and do not oppose a mail-in election in these unprecedented circumstances,” Maribel Wadsworth, publisher of the Gannett-owned USA Today, said in a statement.
NLRB spokesperson Ed Egee said Gannett never followed up with the NLRB to say it would agree to a mail ballot for the News Journal election.
Egee said both parties generally need to agree on the method for carrying out union elections. Unions such as the Communications Workers of America, which is affiliated with the NewsGuild, worry that protocol could allow employers to hold up elections by refusing to agree to mail-in ballots.
The Wilmington election is now slated to occur in-person on June 16, which workers say raises safety issues.
“If the pandemic continues its course in Delaware, forcing reporters to gather in person to vote poses a public health risk,” the journalists with the Delaware NewsGuild said in a statement.
And the stakes are high for the News Journal reporters, who, like their Gannett colleagues across the country, have been furloughed.
“Had the company agreed to a mail-in vote, we would now have the legal protections that come with status quo, and would have been able to negotiate the terms of furlough," the Delaware NewsGuild said. "Instead, we’re left without those protections and in limbo in the middle of a pandemic.”
The Delaware NewsGuild is asking Gannett to recognize the union without an election, since the majority of its staffers have signed union cards.
That won’t happen, Wadsworth said in a statement.