Our View: Congrats to Citizens’ Voice on its 40th, though union ties seem weakened

The Citizens’ Voice, whose Wilkes-Barre offices are seen here, came into existence 40 years ago this weekend. - Times Leader file

We want to extend congratulations to the folks at the Citizens’ Voice on their 40th anniversary, and we mean that sincerely.

With 111 years of operation to our credit here at the Times Leader, we understand that longevity in this business is no mean feat.

We recognize that there are many talented and dedicated people at the CV who are as passionately committed to this community and to journalism as we are. The Wyoming Valley has greatly benefited from having two strong daily newspapers.

Despite the competition — which remains very real — the newspaper business is a small world; many of us know many of them very well. Some of their employees used to work here, and some of our employees used to work there. While there certainly are personal rivalries, there is definitely respect, even friendships, among competitors.

Without the efforts of the workaday staff at the Voice, those 40 years of service to the Wyoming Valley would not have been possible.

That is where the congratulations end.

For the CV’s anniversary is tied to one of the most bitter chapters in local history, the four-year Times Leader strike which began Oct. 6, 1978 and the ongoing “newspaper war” it unleashed.

Isn’t it a lovely thing that college professors and armchair media critics can pontificate on those events from the safe distance of four decades, waxing poetic about working class solidarity and lantern-jawed union leaders standing up to greedy corporate bosses in the grand tradition of coal miners, steel workers and garment factory laborers?

The strike was ugly.

Survivors from the “four blocks of anthracite,” as the striking TL unions called themselves, will tell you how unyielding and brutal Capital Cities Communications Inc. management was before and during the strike. (Capital Cities, mercifully, exited this market long ago.)

They probably won’t brag about the racial epithets hurled at African-American armed guards initially brought in by Times Leader management to protect its building and staff.

They definitely shouldn’t brag about the beatings or window-smashings; about spitting on Times Leader employees who dared go to work, and slashing their tires; about the threats and intimidation against shopkeepers who attempted to continue selling the TL.

It would be wrong, however, to imagine all strikers and their supporters were thugs.

Most were just hardworking journalists, typesetters and other newspaper staffers who stood up for something they believed in, and 40 years later the paper they created as a temporary act of defiance is still publishing.

So are we.

Those who would pretend that the Citizens’ Voice remains a paragon of workers’ rights valiantly defending the moral high ground against the “scab” paper are deluded at best, however, and dishonest at worst.

That is not intended as an insult to the CV’s unionized workers, but an acknowledgement of two fundamental realities.

First, the remaining members of the CV old guard sold out to Times-Shamrock Communications in 2000 for $5.5 million, according to previous reports. We know they are a family-owned company with headquarters just “up the line” in Scranton, but they are a major media conglomerate nonetheless, and from what we have observed they are by no means union-friendly.

Second, all American newspapers have suffered mightily in the past two decades as the Internet and social media have bitten deeply into our traditional business models. The Citizens’ Voice has not been immune to these trends.

Yes, our paper’s staff has been reduced through layoffs and attrition. So has theirs, even with union representation.

The negotiation of the first new CV contract under Times-Shamrock ownership underscores that point. One of our current employees worked there at the time, and as a union officer had a front-row seat as the number of unionized employees begin to shrink under the new regime.

Documents generated by the newsroom’s union further illustrate the trend.

CV journalists are still members of an arm of Communications Workers of America known as The Newspaper Guild. According to annual reports on file with the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 34 Guild members at the Voice in 2000. As of September 2018, there were 21.

The Times Leader strike of 1978 lives in infamy. The Citizens’ Voice “strike” of 2014, meanwhile, faded into obscurity — rightly so, perhaps, but its underlying issues are worth remembering.

In December 2014, unionized reporters and photographers at the Voice voted to hold a one-day byline strike, withholding their names from stories and photos to let their bosses know “that we really want a new contract,” according to a union letter obtained by The Times Leader at the time.

“(W)e have reached a point where we believe that the deep respect we have for the CV is not being returned by this company,” the letter continued. “The repeated message to us at the bargaining table has been that management is unwilling to guarantee any wage increases in a new contract and wants to be able to decide on its own whether there will be a raise and, if so, what it will be.”

That letter did not detail salary ranges, but did refer to the desire for “a very modest increase in our very low pay and benefits,” saying that CV staff “are among the lowest paid Guild employees in the United States.”

If so, that would echo the situation 11 years earlier, when the Times Leader reported in a November 2003 story on contract talks that CV wages ranked near the bottom of 114 papers represented by the Guild, with only six papers paying less.

If anything, the union’s sadly diminished role seems to be little more than determining who gets cut first when the budget axe is swung, as Times-Shamrock did most recently at the Voice in August.

If the strikers of 40 years ago faced the conditions prevailing at the Citizens’ Voice today, we have to imagine they’d be ready to give Times-Shamrock one hell of a fight.

The CV might still have unionized staff, but it is no longer a union paper in the spirit of’ ’78.

— Times Leader

The Citizens’ Voice, whose Wilkes-Barre offices are seen here, came into existence 40 years ago this weekend.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/web1_CVBuilding.cmyk_.jpgThe Citizens’ Voice, whose Wilkes-Barre offices are seen here, came into existence 40 years ago this weekend. Times Leader file