Missoula Independent staff votes ‘yes’ for union; next up, contract negotiations

Then-owner Matt Gibson sold the Missoula Independent to Lee Enterprises in April 2017.

The 10 non-management employees of the Missoula Independent voted Friday to have the News Guild – Pacific Northwest represent them in contract negotiations with their corporate owner, Lee Enterprises.

“The Missoula News Guild is excited to sit down with management and hopeful that we can reach a mutually beneficial collective bargaining agreement with Lee Enterprises,” the union announced in a written statement.

“The unanimity of the vote is proof of how strongly the paper’s staff feels about securing a viable future for the Independent in Missoula,” the statement continued.

Last month, the alternative weekly’s news, advertising and production staffs filed an organizing petition with the National Labor Relations Board. Friday’s decision is the second step in what is expected to be a slow process.

Lee Enterprises has not responded to the petition. However, general manager Matt Gibson has written advertisers to “provide a fuller picture” of the labor movement. While he said he understands the anxieties of the Indy staff, the effort to organize is naive and shortsighted, he said.

“It’s not in the best interest of the staff, the paper, the community, or the owner, Lee Enterprises,” he wrote. “When it’s all said and done, the organizing effort amounts to a dramatic gesture to take some sort of principled stand, but there’s no substance to it.”

Gibson is also general manager of the Missoulian and Ravalli Republic, which also are owned by Lee Enterprises, as are the Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record and the Montana Standard in Butte.

In Friday’s announcement, staff members at the Missoula Independent said they are concerned by the corporation’s recent actions in Casper, Wyo., where the newsroom of the Casper Star-Tribune recently unionized.

Earlier in the week, the corporation laid off “a well-regarded, award-winning editor,” allegedly for financial reasons, after the newsroom had been assured that no layoffs were coming, the Indy staff reported.

The layoff occurred in a late-night telephone call, according to the report.

The following morning, an organizer of the Casper News Guild – a reporter – was suspended because he allegedly sent an email notifying other staff members that the editor had been laid off.

Both the editor and reporter confirmed the layoff and suspension on their personal Twitter accounts, expressing surprise at the company’s move.

In Friday’s statement, the Missoula News Guild employees thanked “the many supporters from Missoula and around the state of Montana and the country who reached out over the past few weeks, especially the representatives of other media union locals.”

“Most of all, the support of our Missoula readers and advertisers has sustained our motivation to make the paper as strong as we can,” they said. “Thank you for believing in us, the employees who work every day to keep the Independent worthy of your trust. Your continued, vocal support will be more important than ever as we begin working towards our first contract.”

In earlier interviews with Missoula Current, reporters at the Independent said the organizing effort is their attempt to have a say in the future of their newspaper.

Gibson owned the Missoula Independent for 20 years before selling the newspaper to Lee Enterprises a year ago.

In his letter to advertisers, Gibson said the weekly has been losing money and only persisted initially because of his personal commitment to the paper and now the commitment of Lee.

“For the last 11 months, Lee Enterprises has carried the weight,” he wrote. “Despite the very real financial issues, Lee’s treatment of the Indy and its staff since acquiring it last April has been generous, patient, and wholly above reproach. The pressures on the business will persist whether the staff unionizes or not.”

The organizing effort, he said. “is naïve and extremely shortsighted.”

Meanwhile, the employees have received the backing of Montana’s largest labor union, the MEA-MFT.

“We are watching because we believe working people everywhere should have the unfettered right and opportunity to organize into unions and bargain collectively with their employers,” MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said. “We urge Lee Enterprises to step back from anti-union interference and let the employees decide entirely for themselves if they want to be (in a) union or not.”