A group of people walking
San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate staffers picket outside the newspaper’s Fifth and Mission building at noon today. Photo by Yujie Zhou, May 23, 2023.

Instead of reporting and editing, San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate staffers will be picketing outside the newspaper’s Fifth and Mission streets building at noon today, pushing the newspaper’s management to sign a union contract after negotiations have stalled.

Nearly two years into negotiations between the San Francisco Chronicle Guild and Hearst, and after dozens of bargaining sessions, the guild now feels that it is on the verge of failing to address three issues that “are just too important” to go unaddressed in their contract: stagnant wages, unequal parental leave and an arbitration clause that allows the company to take “creative interpretations of the contract.”

That’s according to Dustin Gardiner, state capitol reporter and a main organizer of the walkout, the first action the guild has taken in a bid to gain more leverage in its negotiations.

“We’re hopeful that we’re close to a final agreement. But we really can’t settle on these three things,” said Gardiner. “And they’re not willing to move closer to us on those so far.”

Gardiner said the problem was already causing harm to the newsroom: Experienced and mid-career reporters at the paper have left for greener pastures, he said, seeking higher pay and better benefits. 

“They’re just not understanding that we have a revolving-door problem with so many experienced people leaving,” he said. “That’s why our members feel so strongly that we need to do something to make them understand that we’re serious about this.”

The guild’s next bargaining session with management is Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The group represents workers at both the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate.

Chronicle management declined to comment on today’s action.

  • A group of people walking
  • A group of people walking
  • A group of people walking

More than 95 of the 145 union members have signed a pledge to take part in today’s walkout, and around three dozen of them will be physically picketing outside the building at Fifth and Mission streets between noon and 1 p.m..

“They will not do any work from that time: No editing, no Slack, no phone calls,” said crime reporter Megan Cassidy, another member of the bargaining team.

Wages remain a sticking point. “There’s no pay system to bring people up over time based on their experience,” said Gardiner. “We’ve had a bunch of experienced, mid- and late-career journalists leave The Chronicle in recent years,” which is creating a gap of institutional knowledge and expertise in the newsroom, he said.

About two dozen employees, including some notable names, have left in the past few years because of dissatisfaction with nearly stagnant wages, Gardiner said. 

That includes Chronicle City Hall reporter Trisha Thadani, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize, who left for the Washington Post in April, citing the lack of guaranteed wage increases. 

“The wages were too stagnant, and the fact that we didn’t even have a guaranteed cost-of-living increase on our already meager salaries was incomprehensible,” Thadani said. “If management doesn’t move, The Chronicle will continue to lose young talent that is vital for the future of the paper.”

In a few instances, the salaries of new hires have outpaced those of more experienced reporters. “The company’s wage scale is just so below the market that they’re having to pay more to hire new people, but they’re not doing anything to bring up existing people,” said Gardiner.

In the lengthy negotiations, which began in June, 2021, the parties have already agreed to some changes, including an increase in vacation leave and a bump in the starting salary from $62,000 to $73,000.

The guild has proposed an experience-based raise of 3 percent every three years, in addition to a 2.25 percent annual increase. Hearst has agreed to the 2.25 increase, contingent on a yearly merit review, but not the additional 3 percent. 

Other issues discussed at the bargaining table include equitable parental leave, which would guarantee employees living outside the Bay Area receive the same parental leave benefits as their colleagues in the area. Currently, locals get eight weeks of parental leave, while those few out-of-towners receive only five weeks. 

“Most of our competitors are giving several months of parental leave,” said Cassidy. “So for them to be nitpicking us over the difference between five and eight weeks, it just seems like a really petty inequity that they’ve created.” 

Union members are also working to get rid of a grievance and arbitration clause in the current contract that Gardiner says is so “inherently problematic” that it has been called a “Trojan Horse clause” by workers.

The clause prevents employees from taking disputes with the company to arbitration. “It makes it really hard for us to enforce the contract,” said Gardiner. “If we disagree with how they’re interpreting something in the contract, the company has the sole authority over that interpretation unless we want to take the issue to court.”

In recent years, managers have paid less for their healthcare plans than workers have; the guild has asked that both pay the same rates, but the clause prevents them from taking the issue to arbitration. 

It “puts us at a big disadvantage and lets the company have some creative interpretations of the contract,” added Gardiner. 

The San Francisco Chronicle Guild is affiliated with the Pacific Media Workers Guild.

Updated, 2:45 p.m.: Around noon, over three dozen guild members gathered outside the Chronicle’s headquarters, chanting “Save local news!”

“We’ve seen a lot of talented colleagues leave for other jobs where they can get paid a lot more,” said columnist Heather Knight. “So we want to make the point that every city needs talented journalists, and journalists deserve to be paid well enough to live in the city they cover.”

“When I got to the Chronicle in 1999, almost all of us lived in San Francisco and Oakland. We had that choice, with the pay we could live in the community we covered,” added culture critic Peter Hartlaub. “I don’t think that’s true anymore.”

Hartlaub said the lower wages were affecting the strength of the paper: When he joined the paper in the late 1990s, it was “a finish line where people wanted to spend their career,” he said. Now it’s becoming “a stepping stone, and it shouldn’t be that way.”

“I think the salary issue is a very big part of it,” he said. 

Actions like today’s are rare for the guild. Hartlaub, who has been in the guild for 24 years, said the latest action was in 2009. “I’ll say the young people coming in are incredibly enthusiastic. A lot of our union leaders now are coming from the new people coming in. And that energy really powered us,” he said. 

“Hearst is unfair. All we want is our fair share,” the crowd chanted.

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. Schadenfreude that the stenographers for corporate power find themselves on the receiving end of the fruits of their advocacy journalism. Not as beneficial as a cop strike, tho.

    Who knew that the major upside of any strike would be no Heather Knight?

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  2. In recent years, it seems the San Francisco Chronicle has been commiting slow suicide.
    As the price of the paper continues to increase, the product continues to shrink.
    One obvious disappearance is the Business Section. While the paper continues to support the return of Downtown, for the most part, it fails to print anything [except local layoffs] that might be related to that part of the city.
    There is Business in Brief, a short, two-column collection of items most often gathered from the wire services and focused on items of national or world interest, but how does this contribute to the return of Downtown?
    There are other examples, including the fact there are fewer recognizable bylines.
    Today’s piece by Yujie Zhou certainly helps explain the exodus of writers and reporters.
    [It should also assist those looking for work at The Voice of West to make career decisions about San Francisco media.]
    On the other hand, perhaps the Chronicle isn’t trying to take itself out of the business.
    Considering the number of new people with the title of Director on the masthead every day, perhaps it’s not about the end of the Chronicle [and the need for writers and reporters].
    Perhaps it’s about the move from paper to pixels, with all the benefits available to those who no longer have to purchase newsprint, run presses, and drop newspapers in driveways and retail locations around the Bay Area and beyond.
    Something to think about….

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  3. Uh oh, the sight of Heather Knight and JK Dineen picketing the offices of the Chron would be pretty interesting but wait, I forgot, those two are not writers, they’re gossip columnists a la Walter Winchell!

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