A year into his tenure as a reporter at The Buffalo News, a columnist approached Phil Fairbanks and asked if he would be interested in working with the Buffalo Newspaper Guild.
At the time, Fairbanks was covering business and labor, and was taking classes at Cornell’s ILR School, which specialized in labor relations and union organizing. But Ray Hill, the News’ longtime columnist, insisted that Fairbanks join the Guild’s bargaining team in 1987. Fairbanks’ role became vital as the Guild negotiated its next contract with management — Fairbanks coordinated posters and handed out buttons to fellow Guild members throughout the process of negotiations. Those tokens reminded the Guild and News employees what they were fighting for.
“The News wanted us to pay 20 percent of our health insurance premium, and that’s when other employers were going after that, and that was when the News was making money, hand over fist, a million dollars a week,” Fairbanks said. “When most workers were paying for their health care, we weren’t.
“But that’s what I’m most proud of, that first mobilization campaign. That’s when you see the solidarity of the union, and now, that makes me feel good about what I’m leaving behind.”
Fairbanks retired from the News in July after 34 years as a reporter. He covered business, the city of Buffalo, Buffalo’s city hall, downtown development, and covered the federal courts for the last 10 years.
In 33 of those 34 years,he was ingrained in the work of the Guild. Twice, he was the president of the Guild and has also worked as the vice president for mobilization, the vice president of grievances and as treasurer. He remains a part of the Guild’s executive board, as a past president.
“I’ve had a lot of satisfying moments in my career in the newsroom, but just as many satisfying memories in my time with the Guild,” Fairbanks said. “It’s come from my activism with the Guild, and working with some wonderful people.”
Other members of the Guild leadership team have praised Phil for his steady leadership and wisdom over the years. Even after he left the Guild as an officer, he remains a respected adviser to the Executive Committee and Guild bargaining teams.
“Our union is strong today because Guild members like Phil have worked tirelessly to make it that way,” said Guild President Sandy Tan. “Without his leadership and insights, we wouldn’t be in the strong position we are to face the challenges ahead. Phil’s leadership has been a gift to the Guild, and I am incredibly grateful that he remains a member of Executive Committee in retirement.”
Fairbanks is one of three Guild-represented reporters in the newsroom who have retired this year. Sue Schulman ended her 35-year tenure at the News in February; Schulman helped start the News’ first investigations team in 2000, and oversaw the News’ Northtowns bureau. Jane Kwiatkowski retired from the News in August after 37 years as a reporter.
Fairbanks leaves the News at a time that newsrooms around the country are organizing unions, which he believes reiterates the value of the Guild and of organized labor.
“It’s encouraging, and it’s a reflection of the Guild’s continued relevance,” Fairbanks said.
Fairbanks will also advise the Guild as it prepares to begin negotiations for a new contract, and sees the Guild as one of — something he wasn’t so certain at times during his work with the Guild.
“I don’t think the Guild has ever been more important to the people at The Buffalo News,” Fairbanks said. “I used to worry whether it would continue to be relevant, and I used to worry myself sick if people would reject the Guild, out of fear. But now, I am absolutely confident the Guild is here to stay. People need the Guild, and people see it as extremely relevant. The Guild is the institution at the News they can trust.”
When Fairbanks looks back at his work with the Guild, though, he immediately thinks of all the work he did in engaging its membership.
“Because of mobilization, people feel invested, if they’re asked to wear a button or change their emoji or their avatar to support the Guild,” Fairbanks said. “They feel like they’re really involved, and we’ve always had that.”