The BGA's Andy Shaw, left, with Michael Ferro, formerly of Wrapports, in 2014 Credit: Ramzi Dreessen/Sun-Times

Two months after two senior staff members of the Better Government Association resigned under duress, all 11 members of the staff they left behind signed a petition to join the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) to unionize. Wage scales are an inevitable subject of negotiation when management sits down with labor, but job insecurity often plays a bigger role when employees decide to unionize in the first place.

And in this case, the staff of the BGA looked to the future with foreboding. Its two top investigators had suddenly been shown the door by CEO Andy Shaw, who talked about taking on a role that employees felt was inappropriate. It’s at such moments that members of a nonunion shop take stock of how much voice and influence they actually have at the office and decide to do something about it.

An oddly written news release all but acknowledged that Shaw wanted his subordinates out. “With deep gratitude the BGA announces the departure of Program Director Robert Reed and Director of Investigations Robert Herguth,” it began. The release went on to laud their accomplishments, but there was no hint of regret. Shaw said, “I wish them the best in their future endeavors.”

(Shaw told me it was the wrong time for him to make any comment on unionization, the news release, or anything else about the BGA. I reached Reed, but he also said nothing on the record. He and Herguth are understood to be constrained by the terms of their departures.) 

Media shops in Chicago have been down this road before. The idea of unionizing the staff of Chicago Public Media was kicked around for years without going anywhere, before CEO Torey Malatia was fired in 2013. Five months later the professional staff voted 40 to 7 to join SAG-AFTRA.

The Reader is another example. While its founders owned it, occasional talk of joining the Chicago Newspaper Guild never went anywhere. But in 2012 the Reader moved out of its own building into extra space provided by its latest owners—Wrapports, a company then led by Michael Ferro that we feared was running the Sun-Times into the ground. The staff then felt like the misunderstood and underfunded fifth wheel of a failing operation, and organizing in self-defense seemed to make a lot of sense. In January of last year Reader employees voted 19 to 0 to join the guild. (Negotiations on an initial contract are still going on, and Ferro departed earlier this year after acquiring a controlling stake in the Tribune Company, which he rebranded Tronc.)

Media blogger Robert Feder said the vote at the BGA “could be seen as a challenge” to Shaw. Certainly it can. Curiously, a leader of the union campaign is Brett Chase, acting director of investigations, who, if he were appointed permanently to that post, would be management. Chase told me Shaw has done a “fabulous job of fund-raising,” while Reed and Herguth “did a fabulous job of investigating.” But with those two gone, and with Shaw indicating he’d like to play a bigger role in the BGA’s investigative work, “I think there’s a conflict,” said Chase. It’s a church-state issue, he explained: ideally, the people who raise the money—that is, Shaw and the board members who open their wallets to him—shouldn’t be speaking to, much less influencing, the people who choose and run the BGA’s investigations.

“Andy did say he thought donors should be heard,” said Chase. “And now he wants to have more say in the operation, and we want to say we believe in the mission, not the personalities.” Shaw’s energy and expansive personality led the BGA back from the brink of death when he took over in 2009 after a career in TV news. But Reed and Herguth led the mission.

When journalists organize they insist they do so not to undermine the mission but to defend it. The BGA staff issued a statement that struck this note. “Organizing as staff members,” they declared, “is an essential step to achieving the goals we all share as BGA employees: producing responsible and ethical journalism; promoting effective and smart public policy; and competently operating a 93-year old nonpartisan organization that will continue to be a force for good.” 

The same day that the BGA announced Reed and Herguth were leaving, it added two new consultants: Doug Longhini, a former BGA, ABC, and NBC reporter, to work with the investigative unit; and Clark Bell, a former reporter and journalism program director of the McCormick Foundation, to deal with strategic initiatives. 

“There are a lot of changes right now,” said Chase. “These two guys are gone, and then there are these two new guys parachuting in. We want to be part of the conversation.”

This is a familiar beef when union campaigns erupt. Professional staffs that liked to believe they were the heart and soul of the operation suddenly discover they have no say in it. That rude awakening can matter a lot more than money.

“I’m paid fine,” Chase said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that BGA staff had voted to unionize. Currently staff has signed a petition to join the union.