By Arnie Alpert, Active with the Activists
Arnie Alpert spent decades as a community organizer/educator in NH movements for social justice and peace. Officially retired since 2020, he keeps his hands (and feet) in the activist world while writing about past and present social movements.
Members of the union representing employees of New Hampshire’s largest newspaper were told to leave the parking lot at the NH Institute of Politics almost as soon as they arrived in the late afternoon of September 20. The occasion was the opening of classes at the Nackey Loeb School of Journalism, which has relocated to the Saint Anselm College campus. The Loeb School is the majority owner of the NH Union Leader.
“They’re the ones who give the First Amendment Awards,” David Lane, a longtime Union Leader photographer, commented.
“This is private property,” a college security officer said, telling them they could practice their constitutional rights somewhere else. The union members complied, and relocated to the sidewalk on Saint Anselm Drive, which is public property and thereby a free speech zone.
The union says its members haven’t had a raise in fourteen years, a span in which the cost of living has risen by more than 40%. On the sidewalk, about 20 union members and supporters from the NH Faith and Labor Coalition chanted, “Fourteen Years, Pay Your People. Fourteen Years, Make It Right,” and “Union Leader Doesn’t Want a Union. Union Leader Doesn’t Lead.”
The NH News Guild, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, represents Union Leader reporters, photographers, ad sales staff, and others, a workforce which like other media organizations has shrunk considerably in recent years. The paper shuttered its own press room a decade ago.
Negotiations on a new contract reached their one-year anniversary last week. The union proposed maintaining existing health, vacation, and sick-time benefits; setting a minimum wage of $18; and raising pay by 19% over 3 years, an amount “that barely keeps up with inflation and recognizes a decade of no raises,” according to a union Facebook post.
The union says the company wants to reduce protections and benefits, grant a small one-time raise, and put in place a vague merit pay system. All in all, union members say the company’s proposals take away as much as they offer. “The Guild advanced a package proposal to address several subjects, but the company rejected it outright. The company gave us two proposals consisting of four sentences restating benefits we already have,” union negotiators said in a recent update to members. “Nothing we’ve seen thus far surpasses the existing CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement]. They’re all rollbacks.”
Jon Phelps, a general assignment reporter, said he came to the Union Leader just before the pandemic, looking for an opportunity. “I’m passionate about journalism. I wanted to advance my career and thought the Union Leader would be good,” he said, holding a sign reading, “Union Leader math. No Raise X 14 Years = ?Cruel.” As time went on, he said, he found it was tougher to live on what he was getting paid.
“I live in a one-bedroom apartment, single guy,” Phelps said. “It’s just tough to pay the bills, just me, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a family.”
On her first picket line since joining the Union Leader as a graphic designer, Elise Thornton said her hourly pay is the same as when she was hired 9 years ago. What she expects? “At the very least,” she said, “cost of living, just something, something to help.”
After the picket line had been going for about 15 minutes, union members saw Joe McQuaid drive past them into the Institute’s parking lot. McQuaid, the former president and publisher of the Union Leader, is now the chair of the board of the Nackey Loeb School. McQuaid’s son, Brendan, took over at the helm of the newspaper in 2020. At the Union Leader, the elder McQuaid’s title is Editor at Large.
After parking, McQuaid walked back to greet his former employees. Mark Hayward, a retired Union Leader reporter who serves on the union negotiating team, said that with its two-thirds ownership share in the newspaper, “the Loeb School can tell the Union Leader: settle this.”
McQuaid was dismissive. “The board of directors at the paper decides the fate,” he replied.
The relationship between the Nackey Loeb School and the Union Leader is a bit complicated. When Nackey Loeb, the paper’s former owner, died in 2000, ownership of the Union Leader was transferred to the Nackey Loeb School of Communications, a newly formed nonprofit organization. The school says it “promotes and defends the First Amendment and fosters interest, integrity and excellence in journalism and other forms of communication by educating students of various ages and providing them with the tools and knowledge to improve their skill.” The banner on its website promotes “Free Press. Free Speech. Free Classes.”
I can vouch for the free classes; the last one I took was on promoting community media in an era in which legacy newspapers are in decline.
For-profit businesses can’t legally control nonprofit organizations, but nonprofits are allowed to own for-profit subsidiaries. The Union Leader’s website says it is “owned by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications,” though the school’s actual ownership share is 66%, according to a form the school filed with the IRS for calendar year 2022. Since the Union Leader is a privately owned for-profit business, neither ownership of the other 34% nor the composition of the newspaper’s board must be publicly disclosed.
According to its IRS form, the School had more than $3 million in assets at the end of December. Earlier this year, the Loeb School sold its building on William Loeb Drive in Manchester for $1.59 million.
In August, the Nackey Loeb School announced “a strategic affiliation with the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College,” which it said, “represents a significant step forward in our commitment to promote First Amendment freedoms and advancing educational programming.” Laura Simoes, the school’s executive director, gave me a quick tour of their new home inside the Institute. She’s relieved that she no longer has to manage a building while running a school.
September 20 was opening day for the school’s new round of classes, including one on “messaging your mission.” That’s what the union was doing outside.
When the demonstration on Saint Anselm Drive broke up, Michael Cousineau, the union’s current president, said, “We got our message across about no raises for 14 years.”
“Everyone works hard at the Union Leader,” he added, “and we deserve a fair wage and a raise for all the time we spent during COVID, making sure the paper was out.”
The union and representatives of the Union Leader’s management will be back at the bargaining table Tuesday, their 15th round of talks. But before then, the union and its supporters will hold another public demonstration on Saturday in Milford. That’s where the Union Leader will host “Wicked STEM,” one of the regular “signature events” the company uses to boost its public image. For union members, it’s one more opportunity to let the company know its reputation would be boosted more if its employees get a raise.