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The Chicago Tribune's Freedom Center printing plant and newsroom in the River West neighborhood.

The Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant and newsroom in the River West neighborhood.

Sun-Times file

Unionized journalists at the Chicago Tribune fighting for their first contract

Unionized journalists at the Chicago Tribune, who have been without a contract since 2018, plan to rally in front of Tribune Tower downtown on Saturday to call attention to their contract fight and their struggles with the paper’s owner, Alden Global Capital.

The New York-based hedge fund became the paper’s largest shareholder in 2019 and bought it in 2021.

WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang sat down with Chicago Tribune journalist and Guild member Darcel Rockett to talk about the state of the city’s largest newspaper. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Neither Alden nor Tribune Publishing responded to WBEZ’s request for comment.

What would you like the public to know about the union’s fight? Why is it so important?

This is not about us whining about getting a raise. It’s about this hedge fund hurting a product that people rely on. Readers should not be paying for a worse product. You don’t want to get a publication where 50% or 60% of it is wire copy.

You want the local. You want people going out there having connections and conversations with the community that we serve. That is the point. We’re fighting for inclusion. We’re fighting for democracy. Journalism is holding these people that we put our trust in to account. And if we are no longer here, if we are no longer doing our jobs to the best of our ability, we lose that. We lose a portion of our democracy.

Achieving a first contract is tough for most unions, but five years — and running — is a long time. What are you hoping for in your first contract?

Five years is way too long. But what we’re hoping for is to keep the 401k match that Alden wants to eliminate. It’s already been eliminated for those who are non-union in the newsroom. Alden also does not want to give us raises, and most of us have not had a raise in the five years — or even longer than that. So we would definitely like to have that instituted in the first contract. And Alden currently has proposed two years of bonuses equaling the amount of $1,200 instead of a pay increase. And if you eliminate the 401k match, [and with the] cost of living, we’re working at a deficit here.

Has Alden come to the bargaining table?

Yes, we have been going to bargaining meetings, [but] we have yet to actually move the needle as far as a 401k match, raises — so basically, things that have to do with money and pay. That seems to just be the linchpin in all this.

I’ve seen comments from Tribune readers on Twitter complaining about the cost and the quality of the paper and the website. How are those things related to what Alden has or has not done with the paper in the past few years? Or are they unrelated?

Since Alden has owned us we’ve lost a large amount of institutional knowledge with people leaving. There’s continued disinvestment in the newsroom, as far as whatever dividends they have coming in. We are, as the newsroom, not getting that back in any shape, form or fashion. So if that means maybe new laptops, maybe new equipment, maybe things that make your process and getting the stories out there to the public — it’s not there anymore.

So I do feel like that impacts the bottom line as far as readership. If you’re not getting a stellar product, with journalists who are at the top of their game, with all the equipment necessary to do their jobs to the best of their ability, that ultimately shows in the product that you get on your newsstand or that you’re reading on the computer.

The Chicago Tribune has been through several ownership changes and economic downturns in the last 10 to 20 years. What is morale like in the newsroom?

Morale is low — as far as what we’re actually enduring behind the scenes. But morale is strong amongst us getting together and getting this contract out here and making this happen. And ultimately, that’s why we’re heading toward this rally on Saturday. We’re taking it to the streets. So hopefully, people will actually hear what we’re doing, see what we’re doing, and really try to make sure that the Tribune pages are as robust as they were and the product is stellar. That’s our goal.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.

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