labor

Staffs of Phoenix, Miami Alt-Weeklies Tell Their Bosses They're Unionizing

“We’ve been routinely forced to do extra work without any say in the matter—and often without extra pay."
January 21, 2020, 6:12pm
Covers of the Phoenix New Times and Miami New Times

The staffs of the Miami New Times and the Phoenix New Times, two of the four remaining print alt-weeklies remaining in the Voice Media Group’s stable of newspapers, are unionizing. In letters presented simultaneously to management in the Miami and Phoenix offices on Tuesday, the staffs said they have organized in the hopes of gaining more equitable pay and benefits, layoff protections, and a stronger voice in their own newsrooms.

“For years, many of us have sat by as management has laid off friends and colleagues who have produced crucial work,” Jerry Iannelli, a Miami New Times staff writer and member of the organizing committee, said in a statement. “We’ve been routinely forced to do extra work without any say in the matter—and often without extra pay. As alt-weekly writers, we confront the world’s problems loudly and with character. And it’s time we did the same for our own workplaces.”

Of the 10 staffers in Miami and 11 staffers in Phoenix, an “overwhelming majority” signed union cards, Iannelli told VICE. The workers are asking management to voluntarily recognize the Voice Media Guild, which is a unit of the NewsGuild-CWA.

“We do this work because we love it and because we know that our independent voices are vital to Miami and Phoenix,” Voice Media Group Union’s mission statement reads. “But we often find that we do this work in spite of low pay and substandard benefits, constant pressure to bring in clicks, inconsistent mandates from management, steady turnover, and insecurity about the future.”

Are you a worker in media or elsewhere who's organizing your workplace? _We'd love to hear from you. Contact the writer at laura.wagner@vice.com or laura.wags@protonmail.com._

The Denver-based Voice Media Group was founded in 2012 when executives of Village Voice Media, the previous parent company for 13 alt-weeklies across the country, bought the company.

“There’s news to report on the who’s-paying-our-salary front: The Village Voice is now under new ownership,” the legendary and now-defunct New York City alt-weekly reported in September 2012. “Our parent company, Village Voice Media, has been sold to a group of the company’s editors and publishers in a deal that includes the Voice and our 12 sister publications across the country.”

After acquiring the properties in September 2012, VMG began selling them off one by one. In early 2013, VMG sold SF Weekly and Seattle Weekly. (SF Weekly still publishes; Seattle Weekly is now digital-only.) In 2015, it sold Minneapolis City Pages (the paper still publishes under new ownership), St. Louis’s Riverfront Times (it also continues to publish), and its flagship, the Village Voice (it suffered a slow decline before the new owner shut it down in 2018). In 2016, VMG sold OC Weekly (the Orange County, California paper shut down abruptly just before Thanksgiving), and in 2017, it sold LA Weekly to shady new owners who drove talent away and ran the paper to ruin. Of the 13 properties VMG acquired in 2012, they now own only six. Only four of them—Miami, Phoenix Denver, and Dallas—are still in print. The Broward New Times and Houston Press no longer publish print editions and are hobbling along with only a few employees.

In the past year alone, the Phoenix New Times and the Miami New Times have broken news stories locally and nationally. In October, the Miami New Times analyzed state databases and discovered that, for years, thousands of Floridians faced misdemeanor charges without legal representation because they were not able to get a free public defender. A report from September showed that a Miami-based jail healthcare provider, Armor Correctional Health Services, raked in profits while inmates died under its care. In 2018, the Miami New Times published a series about how Miami cops were ignoring a new law allowing police to hand out tickets for possessing weed and were instead arresting people. The series won several awards from the Florida Press Association, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, and the Florida Press Club.

Last January, the Phoenix New Times reported that now-former Arizona state Rep. David Stringer had taken a plea deal on multiple sex offenses, including child pornography, when he lived in Maryland in the 1980s. The report prompted an investigation that led to the release of police reports that showed Stringer had been accused of paying two young boys for sex, which led to his resignation. The newspaper was also first to report on the Phoenix cop who drew his gun on a black family, including a pregnant mother, over alleged shoplifting. That cop was eventually fired. And in 2018, the Phoenix New Times won the George Polk award for its reporting that revealed the Motel 6 chain was colluding with ICE by providing guest logs to the feds.

“All of us care deeply about our work and our mission of speaking truth to power. Too often, our work conditions undermine the talents of our writers and editors instead of nurturing them,” said Elizabeth Whitman, a staff writer at Phoenix New Times and a member of the organizing committee. “We are tired of being ignored or dismissed when we ask for fair compensation and treatment or offer suggestions in good faith to ensure that we can continue writing powerful and important stories.”

For years, alt-weeklies across the country have been pushed to the brink of death by harsh business realities, greedy owners, and, usually, combinations of the two. By organizing, the Voice Media Group Union is hoping to find ways to preserve the papers’ award-winning journalism now and into the future.

“We really are doing this in the spirit of cooperation,” Whitman told VICE. “We hope corporate will recognize us voluntarily.”

Voice Media Group executive associate editor Andy Van de Voorde did not immediately respond to a request for comment; neither did Phoenix New Times editor-in-chief David Hudnall or Miami New Times editor-in-chief Tom Finkel.

Update 3:35 p.m. ET: Hundall and Finkel did not have a comment; Van De Voorde said, "We have just received a letter from the organizing committee and are reviewing the circumstances and the request."