Credit: Danielle Scruggs

Late last week employees of the Reader flew a distress signal. “Save the Chicago Reader,” which you can find here, let the city know our weekly paper is in danger and asked the public for support in keeping it alive.

How? By signing an online petition intended for the eyes of Bruce Sagan, chairman of Sun-Times Holdings, which controls the Reader and Sun-Times. The petition calls the Reader a “distinguished journalistic legacy and a beloved institution” and tells Sagan that “in the current media environment, the only hope for the Chicago Reader is bold and committed investment—more marketing resources, more digital resources, more staff and, especially, more content.”

Instead, says “Save the Chicago Reader,” the Reader is being starved: repeated cutbacks have diminished “editorial coverage and quality,” particularly to the shrunken print edition. Staff reductions have damaged ad sales and distribution. The surviving employees “haven’t received a cost-of-living wage increase in nearly a decade.”

I support this campaign. I agree with the petition’s diagnosis and prescription. But the public appeal asserts it’s being made by “we, the Reader‘s staff,” and this is not precisely true.
As you will see when you link to the petition, and the top of your screen announces “Chicago News Guild,” this is a union-driven initiative.

The guild has represented Reader employees since we voted 19-0 last January to unionize. But negotiations on an initial contract have been a slog, and their failure to get anywhere in particular has exacerbated the frustration that the petition expresses. They’ve inspired the rank and file to look beyond the bargaining table to get something accomplished, and the petition is an expression of that.

“This all began when the Reader formed a bargaining unit,” says political writer Ben Joravsky, the unit’s designated spokesman. “The bargaining unit’s what gives us cohesion. If there was no union, it would be everybody at the Reader asking the Sun-Times. That’s great. We went that route. It didn’t work. Throughout the Mara era [Mara Shalhoup was editor from 2011 to February 2015] there’d be staff meetings, and very gently and politely someone would raise the question about is someone going to get a raise this year, or are we going to replace so-and-so who left? And Mara would tell us in no uncertain terms, ‘There is no money.’

“The idea that, without the guild forming us into a collective bargaining unit, we would be where we are is inaccurate. It took the guild to get us to this point.”

And that’s the rub. The guild provides cohesion, muscle, and tactical savvy. But this petition is a cry for help, a cry that’s been welling up inside the Reader staff since long before the guild entered the picture. And so I’m sorry it wasn’t made by the whole staff—by everyone from editor Jake Malooley on down. Instead, Malooley, who sits on the other side of the negotiating table though he has nothing to do there, and a few other Reader staffers in exempt positions were kept in the dark. They’re management. (In a couple of cases, the guild is disputing whether they should be or not.)

Sagan, to whom the petition is addressed, stands by a statement he made earlier this month when guild leaders presented him with a letter asking for “future investment” as well as “fair compensation” and progress at the bargaining table. Sagan refused to accept the letter. “Please understand that contract bargaining is an area filled with many, many rules. I am not a member of the bargaining committee,” he explained. “They are the appropriate recipients of any communications on that issue.” That letter explicitly addressed the bargaining; the public appeal makes no mention of it. Nevertheless, the exclusion of management and the guild’s top billing brand the appeal as the guild speaking up, not the paper.

This isn’t a distinction without a difference. I think it’s an important difference—optically and spiritually. Given the inflexible role-playing of union-management negotiations, I suppose it was necessary for planners to keep Malooley (who had no comment) out of the picture—they probably spared him the hot seat and did him a favor. But even some things that are necessary are inappropriate.