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Battle may lie ahead for union, Casper Star-Tribune

In my 40-plus year career I have been fired by the two largest newspapers in Wyoming. That’s nothing to brag about but under the circumstances I’m not ashamed, either.

I never planned to write this column, but after learning that Casper Star-Tribune employees are trying to join a union, I’d like to share my undeniably unique perspective on unions and Wyoming newspapers.

In 1993, I was the editorial page editor of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne, and had been employed there for 18 years, when the Communications Workers of America offered to represent Tribune-Eagle employees. There was enough interest that the union notified the company of its plans and scheduled a vote. Before the vote could be held the CWA had to determine who was eligible to join.

A National Labor Relations Board hearing determined that, even though I didn’t manage anyone, I was management because I represented the paper’s views — and thus not union material.

The paper required all managers to wear a button with the word “union” and a slash through it. Our assistant news editor, Kelly Flores, and I refused. We were suspended indefinitely without pay. To all intents and purposes, we were fired.

Watching someone who had been there so long get canned instilled, I think, a natural degree of fear in the other newsroom employees. The CWA lost. I wish the outcome had been different, but if I had been in their shoes, I would have been afraid, too.

The anti-union harassment before I was suspended was a terrible, pressure-packed ordeal. Newsroom employees spied on each other. Several reported their friends to management as union sympathizers. There were endless meetings on both sides. Almost all trust disappeared.

Messages against the CWA were flashed on our computer screens throughout the day. Signs were posted everywhere, including one with a huge photo of Michael Jordan accompanied by the words, “He doesn’t need a union to be great.” Apparently managers had never heard of the National Basketball Players Association.

I believe all employees should have the right to collective bargaining. I wrote several pro-union editorials for the paper, and it would have been the height of hypocrisy for me to follow the company’s orders. I was confident my free speech rights would protect me, but learned in court over the next year that wasn’t true in the workplace.

Kelly and I sued for wrongful termination in state court, and the Cheyenne judge assigned to our case recused himself and turned it over to the district court in Gillette. After an hour-long hearing there, the judge granted the newspaper its motion for summary judgment and threw out our lawsuit. It was a long ride home to Cheyenne.

We appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which voted 5-0 against us. The high court said in a right-to-work state like Wyoming, an employer could fire a worker for any reason. If a company decides it doesn’t like the blue shirt you’re wearing, you could find yourself unemployed. The Wyoming ACLU expressed interest in taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court but was overruled by the national organization, which said we wouldn’t win there either.

I had hoped our court case would definitively prove that workers have at least some protections in the workplace under the Wyoming Constitution’s guarantee that “every person may freely speak.” Buttons, of course, have a long history as vehicles for political speech. Ironically, we were arguing for the right to remain silent, to not have to wear a button with which we disagreed.

Instead, Drake v. Cheyenne Newspapers Inc. is used as a legal precedent to demonstrate that workers have no free speech rights in Wyoming. To know that is my legacy is disheartening, to say the least.

I learned that after the vote the paper raised some workers’ pay and I’m happy about that. I can also take consolation that while we lost, it must have cost my former employer a small fortune to hire an expensive union-busting attorney from Nashville to defeat us.

I was fortunate to be hired as a reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune two months after I was fired. At the time the Star-Tribune considered my refusal to wear the button a badge of honor. After the company was sold to Lee Enterprises, it became as anti-union as the Tribune-Eagle. But even though I was management they never asked me to wear a button for any reason.

In 2013, after almost 20 years at the Star-Tribune, I was fired again. Lee Enterprises says it’s a personnel issue so it won’t talk publicly about my case, but here’s my perspective: when a new editor arrived, my workload was at least doubled and my deadlines pushed ahead. When I couldn’t meet the new requirements I was reprimanded three times by my new boss, who added it to the consistently positive reviews in my permanent record. Then I was fired.

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What happens when a newspaper worker is fired? You are called into the editor’s office, told your employment is terminated immediately and escorted out of the building so you don’t disrupt the newsroom or break anything. All of your possessions must be left behind; a few days later they will unceremoniously arrive in boxes on your porch.

Any severance pay after almost two decades of service? No. I was told the company “generously” wouldn’t fight my unemployment claim. Thanks, guys, that kept me from losing my house.

That was my experience. Meanwhile, the publisher and editor who terminated me were promoted to bigger markets and left Casper. The paper has new management and I have no knowledge about what pay, benefits or working conditions are like now.

Could a union have helped represent me so I could keep my job? I think so. I am still a strong supporter of unions.

Two weeks after I lost my job, WyoFile and then-editor Dustin Bleizeffer contracted with me to write “The Drake’s Take,” and in my view saved my journalism career. I’m not considered an employee but I’m convinced there will never be a union at WyoFile. Unions aren’t necessary at companies that respect their employees, pay them a livable wage and offer good working conditions.

The Tribune-Eagle has new ownership and still doesn’t have a union. My relationship with the company has been completely repaired. The paper has printed this column for a few years, which makes me feel like I still have a presence at the place where I began my career so long ago. It means a lot to me.

I wish the Star-Tribune employees seeking a union good luck. I know firsthand how difficult it is for a Wyoming newspaper to be unionized, and that such efforts at other state newspapers have been stamped out as quickly as management finds out about them. When companies use my Supreme Court case as a reason to fight unions, I am disappointed but unbowed. Unions have lost a lot of membership and power since Wyoming became a right-to-work state, but I will always support them even though I’ve never been a member.

After all, life is a learning experience for everyone, is it not? One thing I have learned is that workers always need to have someone watching their backs. That’s why unions exist.

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About the Author

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Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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7 Responses to Battle may lie ahead for union, Casper Star-Tribune

  1. Vicki Lindner February 16, 2018 at 6:09 pm #

    One of the best articles and discussions I’ve seen on Wyofile, and that’s saying a lot. When I worked for the state at The University of Wyoming I learned that the state did not have to negotiate with unions. So we had none. And nowhere to complain about anything except to each,other in the hall. Years went by when nobody got raises.. But back to the subject: To my mind there is nothing more important than free journalism, why I’m giving Wyofile.com another contribution right now.

    Denver, Colorado

  2. Sara Steffens February 15, 2018 at 10:09 am #

    Great piece. I would add, though, that even at workplaces that respect employees, pay them a living wage and offer good working conditions, employees still benefit from joining together in unions.

    Union contracts almost universally require “just cause” for termination, eliminating “at will” employment. Even otherwise good managers make mistakes, and when that happens “just cause” provisions help protect employees from losing their jobs (and their apartments, cars and homes).

    Unions also give journalists a stronger voice in the newsroom and a legal right to participate in discussions about ethical standards, social media, click metrics, attribution, and many other critical issues. The best journalists care deeply about our stories, our readers and our publications. Being part of a union gives us a powerful legal tool to help uphold the ideals of our profession.

    Washington, District Of Columbia

  3. Dustin Bleizeffer February 14, 2018 at 8:17 pm #

    I grew up in Gillette when anti-union mining companies staked their claims in the Powder River Basin, and they won the day with good wages and benefits. Those wages and benefits began to deteriorate in the 1990s, while the anti-union sentiment remained like so many modern-day Wyoming mythologies. It didn’t take long, once in the workforce, to understand that my employers’ best interests were not always my own — which may have been a factor in becoming a journalist. Yet nothing confirmed that sentiment more than when Lee Enterprises took ownership of the Casper Star-Tribune during my tenure there. I hope that readers understand that what the CST newsroom is asking for, more than anything, is a chance to continue working as journalists in Wyoming without having to chase a living wage somewhere else. Wyoming needs media companies to invest in rural newsrooms for the sake of continuity and institutional knowledge — so reporters are invested in and understand the communities they serve, rather than serving an 18-month tour of duty before moving on. Instead of relying on media corporations to understand this, independent news organizations are sprouting in the rural West and they will increasingly turn to their audiences for financial support, and that’s a good thing. I wish the CST news staff success, and I hope that Wyoming residents support journalists who wish to live and work here by investing in their local newsrooms.

    Casper, Wyoming

  4. Deb Simon February 14, 2018 at 10:26 am #

    Thank you for this timely article. I will be forwarding it to my son who was recently fired from the Casper Star Tribune. He is young man who for 3 plus years drove a truck full of newspapers across this state in the dead of night, 5 and often 6 nights a week no matter the weather or road conditions to ensure the people of Wyoming got their news first thing every morning. He was paid $10/hour and if he wanted to participate in the company benefits plan, he had to contribute part of that $10/hour. This was his sole source of income. Imagine living in Casper, Wyoming on $10.00 an hour! No wonder the employees are trying to unionize!
    Thank you for your dedication to real journalism, especially your courage to stand for what you believe in!

    Douglas, Wyoming

  5. Vanessa Hastings February 13, 2018 at 5:43 pm #

    Kerry, your countless informative and well-written columns constitute your professional legacy. Never think otherwise for a moment.

    Sheridan, Wyoming

  6. Mary Grant February 13, 2018 at 10:25 am #

    I was a union activist for 20 years. I served at both the local and state levels as chief steward, member of the legislative committee, and elected representative to our local labor council. I testified before the legislature, and fought to ensure workers’ rights for union and nonunion members alike.

    As a native, most of my education and life experience were acquired in Wyoming, but when I had an employment experience similar to the author’s in another state, I turned to the union. I kept my job, took the training, and ended up in charge of all representational matters in my chapter. I fell in love with research, became empowered on a level denied to me in other venues, and came to realize that no matter how much I love Wyoming, I could not thrive there.

    I hope the Tribune employees are successful, that no one loses their job, that CWA appropriately supports this nascent movement toward workers’ rights and empowerment in Casper. It is time for Wyoming to embrace values that support its citizens and do not require simple maintenance of the status quo.

    San Francisco, California

  7. JIM W PHILLIPS February 13, 2018 at 9:08 am #

    Kerry’s article brought back some mixed emotions of my career at a local utility that was unionized back in the 1970’s with the employees voting to have the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) represent them. I campaigned with others for this representation and believe for the most part, it was a good deal for both the employees and company. The company resisted at first but afterwards they came to accept the union as a fact and eventually realized it was good to have a contract with the employees spelling out the workplace rules and interaction guidelines in disputes. The employees immediately were rewarded with higher wages and benefits and a means of being heard in grievances with the company.
    Twenty-five years as a union member and steward taught me a few of the challenges unions face. As the years go by, the employees forget that they ARE the union and must work at keeping it viable. Inactivity is the biggest challenge for unions. In Right to Work states it is even more challenging. Casper Star-Tribune employees need to keep this in mind if they are unionized.

    Newcastle, Wyoming

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