Accusations of harassment, racism, elitism and union busting from El Diario employees, who claim their support of the Newspaper Guild of NY made them a target for termination has impreMedia, the paper’s parent company, in crisis mode.
A round of layoffs announced two weeks ago has sparked major discontent and union action from El Diario’s newspaper workers, including a picket in front of impreMedia’s headquarters in New York yesterday.
About 40 people rallied in support of the 12 people laid off on Friday, June 13. Of those, 8 were union employees, including 4 reporters: Rosa Margarita Murphy, Gloria Medina, Candida Portugués and Héctor Rodríguez, most of whom had been with the company over 12 years. The others were corporate employees in admin and sales positions.
“The accusations are completely false,” Juan Varela, VP of Content of impreMedia tells Media Moves. “There is no intention to dismantle the union…. this mess was caused by the tremendous manipulation of a small group of people.”
The union says the layoffs are illegal, because impreMedia did not give proper notification to the employees or the Guild. Varela says that isn’t true. He insists staffers were notified of the layoffs on June 13, but that their last official day at work is June 30.
“They made good on their threats,” says Nastaran Mobit, an organizer for the Newspaper Guild of NY, which represents El Diario union employees. “During an editorial meeting in February, management warned they weren’t going to adhere to the contract and that for those who were loyal to the guild, their jobs would be gone.”
After that meeting, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against ImpreMedia before the National Labor Relations Board for threatening to fire employees over their loyalty to the union. As part of a settlement agreement coordinated by the NLRB, impreMedia management had to publicly post and email union members notifying the company’s willingness to abide by the Union contract and recognize their bargaining unit representative.
Oscar Hernández, El Diario’s union chairperson, has worked at the paper as an account executive for the past 26 years. He was among the supporters and speakers at yesterday’s rally, who affirms the union employees were illegally fired. He says they were all told to leave the premises the same day they were notified of the layoff, sent home with two weeks pay.
“I love my company and I’ll do everything I can to keep it alive,” he says. “But I don’t like the way this group of managers has operated.” Hernández says he felt insulted that at a meeting in February, Varela said El Diario was a ‘ghetto paper’ and wanted to change the content to make a more upscale paper, so that they had to stop writing only for Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, to go for a more educated reader.” Hernández is a New Yorker proud of his Puerto Rican roots.
He says Varela also told editorial staff in March that “the company was going bankrupt and a lot of them wouldn’t be there in a few months, and didn’t care about the union contract. When I confronted him, he never denied to me saying they were going bankrupt. He told me that sometimes you have to say strong things to get people to respond.”
The Guild also filed 11 contract violation grievances. According to Mobit, those grievances include the company not honoring a seniority clause, laying off longstanding union members to hire new reporters, as recent as two weeks ago, and not paying out severance, as required by contract.
“They [management] say they don’t have money to pay severance,” says Mobit. “The company has to prove the layoffs are from economic necessity, but they haven’t proven that. They said they will show us their books, but haven’t done that yet. They’ve given different accounts of the health of the newspaper.”
Varela insists the layoffs are purely for financial reasons and were at all levels company-wide, including managers, administrative staff, non-union and union employees.
“We told staff about our financial reality. It’s no secret….. We had been suffering circulation losses until December, which worsened due to the cruel winter we experienced. This affected all newspapers in New York, which saw a 20% drop. But it was worse for us, because we have no home delivery,” explains Varela. “We have recovered somewhat in the last month and a half. But it has been difficult…. That’s why we have started new circulation initiatives. We’re trying to open new points of sale. We are reviewing our routes and distribution in order to be more efficient.”
The company also redesigned the 101 year-old paper, to help it stand out in crowded New York newsstands.
“We’re trying to bring a more attractive and modern paper that’s linked to the web and social media,” says Varela. “We’re organizing the content with hashtags to make it a more dynamic paper.”
Varela says that they’re trying to get the entire editorial team to be on board their “digital first” strategy and that will be a key issue in the renegotiation of the union contract set for later this year.
“El Diario has a contract that dates back to before the digital era,” he says. “We need to work in real time. Right now, because of union issues, the work is being done too slowly. That has to change.”
As to the claims of racism and elitism, Varela flat out denies it.
“I am personally very angry over this racism nonsense. They’ve taken a lone phrase out of context,” says Varela regarding the “ghetto paper” reference. “The Latino audience in New York has changed in the last 10 years. The more traditional Hispanic populations are losing numbers here. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are the ones losing the highest percentage as other communities grow, like Mexicans, Ecuadorians and Colombians. We can’t just be a single community newspaper. Just like the paper’s tagline says, we have to be the ‘El Campeón de los Hispanos’ and that means defending the interests of all Hispanics.”
Management published an editorial on Wednesday’s paper defending their commitment to New York’s diverse Latino community.
impreMedia had been shedding staffers during the past few months, but began group layoffs in May. Several longtime staffers were given pink-slips at La Opinión, including senior editor Antonio Mejías Rentas, who most recently spent 11 years at the paper and longtime librarian and archive supervisor, Georgina González, who had been with the company over 26 years. Also let go was political reporter/editor Antonieta Cádiz.
impreMedia also shut down the print edition of its weekly Rumbo, turning it into a digital only publication in early June as part of its cost-cutting. Varela says the company’s other weeklies will remain intact.
** Disclaimer: I worked for impreMedia Digital as the West Coast Web Editor until May of this year and was one the employees laid off by the company.