What is jurisdiction and why should you care?

If there is one aspect of the Guild contract every member should be familiar with, it’s a little-read clause on page four.

There, buried among the legalese, is a sentence that may rival all others when it comes to job security and quality journalism:

“The jurisdiction of the Guild is the kind of work normally and presently performed within the unit covered by this contract.”

Jurisdiction? What is it and why should I care?

The answer to what it is can be complex, but the answer to why you should care is quite simple.

If you don’t, you put the rest of us at risk.

To the uninformed and uninitiated, jurisdiction is one of those inflexible union work rules. In reality, it may be the most important sentence in our contract with The Buffalo News.

In simple terms, jurisdiction is the work we do, whether it’s writing stories, shooting photographs, editing copy or designing graphics. And the contract language defining it is the only way the Guild can assure that the work we do today continues to be the work we do tomorrow.

And that is precisely why the Guild filed a grievance in March over newsroom management’s use of freelance photos and stories.

The grievance revolves around a series of jurisdictional violations that have occurred over the past several months. They range from The News’ use of stringers to cover local news to its use of freelance photos in the lifestyles section of the paper.

The Guild and management have met since the grievance was filed and management, to its credit, has acknowledged some of these violations and taken steps to correct them.

A few others, however, remain unresolved.

In any case, the grievance raises the question of why Guild members should care about that strange thing called “jurisdiction.”

It is, first and foremost, about job security. The jurisdiction clause, after all, is one of the few aspects of the contract that prevents the company from farming out our jobs to free lancers.

But it also is a lot more.

The language on page four is one of the few avenues the Guild has for protecting quality journalism by insuring the work we produce is done by professionals, not lowly paid amateurs.

Whether it’s the newsroom or Circulation, Classified or Accounting, we think our members do a better job than people hired from outside our ranks.

And we think history has proven us right.

Yes, we hear arguments all the time from members who think the Guild should allow for greater use of stringers and freelancers given The News’ declining staff. The alternative, they argue, is simply more work for full-time staffers who already feel overburdened.

Again, the answer is quite simple: Tell us where it ends. Tell us where the use of stringers and freelancers stops and, yes, even the Guild will agree to their increased use.

The problem is The News has historically refused to do that.

The obstacle we, as a union, face is that once we allow free lancers to cover one suburban town or shoot photos, The News can argue that they can be used to cover other assignments.

Like it or not, that is the way our contract and labor law works. And that is why we filed a grievance.

So what is the remedy to our grievance?

We think the answer may rest in the agreement we reached back in the 1990s when a similar Guild grievance led to the hiring of five part-time reporters to cover Niagara County and suburban Erie County, the type of part-time work allowed under the contract.

Some of those reporters are still working today, and maybe, just maybe, it is time to add to their ranks.