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The Eclipse Is Over, But the Rochester D&C Strike Is Not

The newspaper's union members say they'll continue to withhold their labor until Gannett gives them a fair contract.

Photographer Shawn Dowd at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle picket.
Shawn Dowd in front of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle office. (Hell Gate)

How many firsts are there left for a 190-year-old newspaper? The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle has checked another one off the list: its journalists are on strike for the first time since the paper, founded in 1833, unionized in the 1930s. 

The 24-person union voted unanimously to strike after five years at the bargaining table in pursuit of a new contract. The NewsGuild union timed the action around Monday's solar eclipse—a "Total Eclipse of the News." But the eclipse is over now, and five days in, the D&C strike is still going strong. "I get stressed out when I'm not on the picket line because I think too much, but when I'm with my coworkers standing in front of the building together, it’s great," Tracy Schuhmacher, food and drink reporter and D&C union chair, told Hell Gate.

So far, all 24 union members—plus friends, family members, other journalists, and other members of the labor movement—have kept a steady picket going in front of the D&C office in downtown Rochester, on the well-trafficked corner of East Main Street and Clinton Ave. "I know there's solidarity, that sort of buzzword for unions, but it's true here—it's a really great spirit and people, everybody's onboard," Gary Craig, a criminal justice and public safety reporter who's been at the D&C for 34 years, told Hell Gate from the picket line on Saturday. 

Rochester D&C workers Kayla Canne, Marcia Greenwood, and Emily Barnes. (Hell Gate)

It was chilly, but striking D&C journalists were bundled up and in high spirits, holding signs and waving at passing cars as drivers honked in support of the union. Others, like Senator Chuck Schumer, have thrown in their support from afar.

The union members told me that the strike is happening because they're so close to a fair contract—one that gives them a $57,000 salary floor, seniority and severance protections, and safeguarding against the use of AI in the newsroom. "If we had been miles and miles and miles apart, I don't think we would have done this, because, why?" Craig said. "But because we seemed so close, it was like, here's the time! We've got a big event, let's get this done. And they just don't seem to be willing to do it."

Hell Gate first tried to contact Craig via cell phone—but he never got the text because union members' work phones had been shut down at the start of the strike. 

The D&C union is up against experts. Since 1928 its parent company has been Gannett, the media giant known in the industry for buying and gutting local newspapers. The D&C operated out of a building that served as Gannett's headquarters until 1985, when the media company moved its HQ to Virginia. (The D&C isn't the only Gannett newsroom in the path of totality to time a strike with the eclipse—the Austin American-Statesman in Texas, also a NewsGuild shop, did the same.) "The last 20 years, I've been seeing layoffs," Craig said. "The newsroom was a hundred plus early in my career, and now we're down to two dozen at most." Still, with a staff of around 30 including management, the paper—Rochester's only daily—goes out to more than 27,000 readers.

In order to put out the paper, Gannett has pulled workers in from other shops and posted temporary job listings at the D&C.

"They're gonna spend more to get scabs here than they would've to cover that small gap that we're apart—we're not apart by that much. But they don't see it that way. They would rather try to prove a point through our skin," said Shawn Dowd, a photographer with the D&C.

Rick, a retired CWA members, with Marcia Greenwood and Chris Hennelley. (Hell Gate)

Dowd suggested that Gannett is risking long standing working relationships the journalists have with their managers for short-term profits.

"At some point, this is over, and we will go back into the building and we will go back to work full time," Dowd said. "The managers in there have to face us after pulling all this shit, and you get to look us in the face and say, 'We want more' or 'Hey, can you help out with this little something extra?' or 'Hey, let's be pals.' You're just treading all over us, and you don't think this is gonna have residuals? We're human beings."

Even though she knows other unit members are pissed, Schuhmacher said she has a relatively sanguine position on the strikebreakers, especially the Gannett employees getting pulled from other newsrooms. "To think that we’re gonna prevent the largest media company in the country from putting out a product…it’s not gonna happen," she said. "Some of the people they brought in are very young, and I don't think they knew why they were being sent to Rochester," she added—the union had actually spoken to one of those young journalists, who said they were "upset to be in the position they're in."

Chris Hennelley, a local accountant who showed up at the D&C picket line on Sunday with snacks like Goldfish and wafer cookies for the striking journalists, showed me a video of his dog that he made on his phone, chasing a dozen tennis balls around a room. "Look, it's [Rochester D&C executive editor] Mike Kilian trying to figure out how to manage the paper!" Hennelley says in the clip, as his dog Juno scrambles after the balls. 

It's a funny way to visualize the plight of a manager left to flounder without his newsroom. It's also a neat representation of what it feels like to try and cover the news—which never, ever stops—with fewer and fewer resources: hectic, futile, and embarrassing. That's what D&C unit members say they've been dealing with since before the pandemic: a newsroom drained of staffers and capacity to report, downgraded to an office they barely spend time in, working for a wage that they say doesn't match up with the costs of living or how hard they work.

From where he stands, Hennelley said the most important resource that D&C journalists are lacking right now is compensation. "We need people with real wages, real benefits, that can come to work every day and do the work," he said. "Instead, they're stressed out about the economic reality, and that's unethical and it's unfair." As a reader, he emphasized that other coverage, from local scabs or Gannett reporters pulled from other newsrooms, just can't compare to the D&C: "Historical, institutional memory just walked out the door!"

Rochester D&C worker James Johnson with Rick. (Hell Gate)

The D&C journalists, meanwhile, are itching to get back to work. Emily Barnes, a consumer advocate reporter who started working at the D&C in December, said on Sunday that she was intimidated by striking so soon into her tenure at the paper, but that showing up to the picket line and spending face time with her coworkers—some of whom she met for the first time ever while on strike—made her feel more at home at the paper than anything else. "We all love our jobs, we wish we were working," she said. "But we're not just fighting for us—we're fighting for our future colleagues as well, and they're worth it."

D&C reporters also have continued to publish stories via their strike publication. "I've got a ton of stories I've been trying to get to, and I'm just gonna roll 'em out," Craig said. "That's management's choice—if they don't want the news, sorry!" He's already published a story on a Rochester restaurateur embroiled in a fraud lawsuit, and plans on publishing an update to the case of a local Cornell student charged with making death threats against his Jewish classmates.
The D&C union has meetings with management set for Thursday and Friday, and hope that thanks to the groundswell of support from both in and outside of the newsroom, they'll reach an agreement soon. "People talk about the decline of newspapers," unit chair Schuhmacher said, "but the kind of support we’ve received tells us we still matter."

Update 4/11/2024: In a statement to Hell Gate, Vice President of Labor Relations Amy Garrard said: "Our goal is to preserve journalism and serve our community as we continue to bargain in good faith. Democrat and Chronicle readers can be assured there will be no disruption to our ability to deliver content and trusted news."

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