2021 was a tumultuous year, challenging but filled with accomplishments

At some point, I’m sure we’ve all felt that the oppressive gloom of 2021 might last forever. As Guild president and as a reporter, there were many days when I had a front-row seat overlapping waves of bad news. I was writing about the Covid health crisis and working with fellow bargaining team members to negotiate the toughest Guild contract negotiations of our careers.

And just when we seemed to wrap things up, Alden Global Capital, “destroyer of newspapers,” tried to take over our parent company, Lee Enterprises.

Do I wish I had an easier year? Of course.

But looking back, I also feel tremendously grateful and proud. Grateful to be part of a team that managed to accomplish so much under such difficult circumstances, and proud to know that I, alongside smart and committed union colleagues, managed to meet some of the greatest challenges our union has ever faced.

We more than held our own. Consider all the Guild has accomplished since the fall of 2020.

Over the course of 10 months, our union brainstormed, researched and negotiated against a new corporate owner looking to dismantle core pillars of our union contract. We reached out to the community in ways we’d never tried before. And we succeeded.

We launched paid social media campaigns, contracted with a public relations adviser, convened a digital jurisdiction subcommittee, pitched stories to Poynter and other online journalism news outlets, staked yard signs, purchased two digital billboards — one down the street from The Buffalo News and one that was mounted to a truck circling Lee Enterprises’ headquarters. We clipped fluorescent signs on our monitors. We launched call-in campaigns and a petition drive that gathered more than 1,800 signatures and hundreds of comments.

We Zoomed our brains out. We spent thousands of dollars and were committed to spending thousands more.

Through the work of our Guild Alumni Chapter, we solicited statements of support from community, labor and elected officials, including State Assembly members and senators, countywide elected officials, and the Western New York Area Labor Federation. Even Congressman Brian Higgins and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer weighed in.

And we did all this work in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ultimately, we negotiated a new contract that provided raises for all, with our lowest-paid members seeing some of the biggest gains. We safeguarded important retirement benefits and job security language. We introduced new contract terms that promote journalism ethics in a digital age, promote diversity and protect against discrimination.

Did we make compromises in the end that could result in people leaving The Buffalo News? Sadly, yes. Did we give everything we had to secure the best possible deal to keep The Buffalo News a place where someone can build a career?

We did.

Our mobilization work last year didn’t end with us. The Buffalo Newspaper Guild played a key leadership role in building the mobilization strategy for the Unions of Lee Enterprises, 12 unions at Lee-owned newspapers, who banded together to fight Alden’s bid to takeover Lee Enterprises – an effort that may be resurrected again in the future.

Beyond mobilization and negotiations, we worked through the challenges of keeping our members informed at a time when so many of us remain separated. We continued to meet the bread-and-butter responsibilities of addressing employee concerns, meeting with management to ensure that contract violations are avoided or addressed, and welcoming new employees.

If we could successfully navigate the challenges of 2021, we can face anything. I have been buoyed by the many messages of support and appreciation from Guild members who recognize what we managed to achieve in the face of so much adversity.

It takes a lot of people to accomplish so much, and I hesitate to name individuals because so many played a role. But I am compelled to thank our full-time Guild administrator, Kim Leiser; vice presidents Aaron Besecker and Rachel Lenzi; and bargaining team members Mike McAndrew, Diana Gawron and Joan Portman. I cannot adequately convey here how important their work and outsized commitment has been to the Guild this past year.

We learned many important lessons in 2021 that will serve the Guild well in the future.

One of those lessons is, we need to raise our profile in the community. We all need to be evangelists for our own cause. We need people to understand why our union matters. Because when the going gets tough, we’ll need the community to stand with us.

We also need a steady stream of new energy, new perspectives and new ideas.

While I never take for granted the support and faith our members have placed in the current leadership team, I would also say that if you think there is no greater role for you to play, or that you lack the experience to meaningfully contribute, you would be wrong. This is your Guild. However strong or weak it is depends on you.

In the coming months, engaging more Guild members in the leadership and support of our union will be a top priority of mine. I expect to see a changing of the guard this time next year. My second term as Guild president expires at the end of December. In fact, all officer positions will be up for election. Vacancies also exist on the Executive Committee and other subcommittees. I encourage anyone curious to learn about how they can make a difference to please contact me at santan716@gmail.com.

Some leadership reshuffling has already begun due to employee departures and other work priorities. Within the last few months, Aaron, who previously served as vice president of grievances and contract compliance, transitioned to vice president of mobilization and communication, and reporter Steve Watson slid into the role of Guild secretary. Beginning this month, Hilary Osborne, the steward for Prepress, takes on the role of treasurer. Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon rounds out the team as the new vice president of grievances.

As I enter my sixth year as Guild president, I know that I and other dedicated Guild leaders have made a real difference in the lives of many. We saved jobs. We prevented exploitation and did our part to create a fair playing field for all. We have loyal members who appreciate and support our union mission. So when I say I feel grateful and proud, that’s why.

Despite the new challenges that may await us in the months and years ahead, I can look back on the past 15 months and know we have the intelligence, strength and will to meet whatever comes.