NewsGuild Challenger Calls for Rerun Election

box of ballots

More than 1,000 NewsGuild ballots were returned with bad addresses, and the election committee was headed by an open supporter of the incumbent president. Photo: jonforpresident.com.

Who will lead the NewsGuild is an open question after its first contested presidential election in 11 years.

Incumbent Bernie Lunzer squeezed out a few more votes than insurgent candidate Jon Schleuss. But Schleuss says Lunzer and his executive team violated a number of federal rules on the conduct of elections.

This prompted Schleuss and at least 60 other members to file challenges calling for a rerun.

It’s possible that the U.S. Department of Labor could overturn the election if the Guild does not act. The Guild’s internal elections committee, which oversaw the vote count, announced it was conducting an investigation.

Schleuss (rhymes with “choice”) applauded the committee’s action. “We need fair elections to be a democratic union,” he said. “We have to get to the bottom of what went wrong. Thousands of members have been disenfranchised and our union should be better than that.”

The vote count on May 16 was 1,282 for Lunzer and 1,021 for Schleuss, a margin of 261 votes. Only 13.9 percent of eligible members cast their ballots.

About a quarter of the members voted in the last international election for president.

What became abundantly clear was that major improprieties held down the turnout.

A thousand members never received a ballot, in a vote that was largely conducted by mail. Two thousand new members who recently organized with the NewsGuild were barred from voting because they are not yet paying dues. Headquarters didn’t inform them how they could become eligible to vote until after the deadline had passed.

The Guild represents journalists and media workers at many U.S. and Canadian news organizations, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It also represents language interpreters, nonprofit workers, and union staffers.

LOS ANGELES MOMENTUM

Schleuss announced his candidacy in January and challenged Lunzer, 61, for the top post. Schleuss, 31, is a data and graphics journalist at the Los Angeles Times. He was one of two people who started the 2018 organizing drive that brought newsroom employees into the Guild.

The victory was all the more remarkable because the Times had fought to keep the union out of its newsroom for 135 years and remained the largest single newspaper in the United States without a Guild contract. It was long considered by the Guild to be the toughest nut to crack.

During his campaign, Schleuss gave his own account of Lunzer’s and the international’s lackluster support for the organizing drive at the Times.

Schleuss and others in L.A. then sought help from the Communications Workers (CWA) and from elsewhere in the Guild.

Nearly 500 members of the Times Guild were prevented from voting in this year’s presidential election—including Schleuss himself.

Schleuss’s candidacy was greeted warmly in many newsrooms where Guild members over the last decade had felt the heavy hand of corporate owners who cut their wages, pushed through contract concessions, and laid off workers. During this period the international union’s leadership has not been particularly helpful.

The L.A. Times organizing drive inspired others across the U.S., and Schleuss pitched in to help those campaigns. He ran on a platform calling for a much more aggressive and supportive organizing strategy, greater union democracy and transparency, and a modern communications plan. That would include a revamped website, aggressive use of social media, and a monthly email newsletter that would reach every member. He called for a much bigger effort by the international union to help mobilize locals to beat back concessions and win better contracts.

BALLOT PROBLEMS

The election was mainly by mail ballot, although several locals had in-plant balloting. Schleuss won most of the largest locals in the U.S. and Canada, including New York, Washington-Baltimore, and Philadelphia. He defeated Lunzer in Minnesota, Lunzer’s home local, by a wide margin.

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Schleuss generally won where he had an opportunity to campaign and present his platform. Lunzer dominated in some of the smaller locals where Schleuss wasn’t able to visit during a short three-month campaign.

Schleuss outlined problems with the election in his formal appeal.

They included NewsGuild headquarters’ failure to give members notice of the election and an opportunity to nominate candidates at the union’s every-other-year sector conference (the News-Guild is a sector of the CWA), and its failure to notify members in newly organized shops that they would need to have their dues paid up by December 15, 2018, in order to vote. That disenfranchised some 2,000 members.

The committee that conducted the election was hand-picked by Guild Executive Vice President Marian Needham, according to an internal email that Schleuss included in the appeal.

She publicly endorsed Lunzer and attacked Schleuss from the podium at the sector conference in January after he was nominated. At least one person who publicly endorsed Lunzer was on the elections committee.

Notice of the election was not mailed to every member, violating the Guild’s own rules. Many members heard about the election only by word of mouth.

The international did not take necessary steps to get the proper addresses of members, and more than 1,000 ballots were returned with no forwarding address.

The elections committee has acknowledged that headquarters was aware it did not have updated addresses for nearly one fifth of its members prior to the mailing of ballots.

There were other problems. The elections committee made periodic trips to the post office, picking up ballots and storing them in a cabinet only a few feet away from Lunzer’s office, in the same location as thousands of unused ballots as well as the ballots that were returned as undeliverable. About 140 ballots were improperly mailed to the Guild office rather than to a post office box controlled by the elections committee, and were nonetheless counted by the committee.

A NEW ELECTION?

Just when all this will be resolved is unclear. The elections committee has not set a timetable for when it will make its recommendations.

Fairness would suggest that the Guild should call a new sector conference, with proper notification to members who would seek to run or nominate candidates. Adequate time would be needed to allow members of newly organized units to pay dues and become eligible.

Any future election should be conducted by individuals who are not loyal to Lunzer. Schleuss has recommended the nonpartisan American Arbitration Association.

Should the Guild not act in a timely matter, Schleuss has said he will take his appeal to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Lunzer has said nothing about the improprieties. In a short statement on the union website after the election, he said he was “deeply humbled” at winning reelection and praised Schleuss for opening a dialogue. On his campaign website, however, he said that Schleuss and the union should accept the results and move on.

The Canadian Media Guild filed a separate challenge to the election over bad addresses and a failure to provide for electronic balloting. And 60 members of the Guild, many of them leaders, filed a separate challenge in the form of a petition calling for a rerun.

“Many of us who took our Oath of Office to the NewsGuild pledged to serve faithfully the members of the union, keeping ever in mind the trust placed in us,” they said. “It is incumbent upon us to live up to that promise.”

Randy Furst is a steward in the NewsGuild at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a former unit vice chair, and a supporter of Jon Schleuss’s candidacy.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 484. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.