Peter Szekely: From journalism to union activism
I never set out to be president of The NewsGuild of New York. It’s a job that found me. And it’s been both the greatest challenge and the greatest working experience I’ve ever had.
I have to say that the work is difficult and there’s enormous pressure to do well, because so many people depend on us. But I’ve loved every minute of it, people tell me I’m good at it and I’m getting the same satisfaction out of it that I got when starting out as a rank-and-file activist years ago.
I’d love nothing better than the opportunity to keep working for you.
My ambition growing up in New Jersey was always to be a journalist. I got a journalism degree from Northeastern University and worked as a reporter for a couple of suburban Boston newspapers before joining Reuters, where I would stay for 28 years, first in New York and then in the Washington bureau for more than two decades.
I was active in the Guild during most of my time at Reuters, serving on seven bargaining committees, including four in which I was the No. 2 person at the table. In my 17 years as “Unit Chair,” the Guild’s top elected rank-and-file position within each workplace, I handled numerous grievances, testified at dozens of arbitration hearings and helped organize our TV operation. During a six-month leave to work as a Guild organizer, I successfully got young journalists at a Long Island weekly paper to vote to go union.
I quickly learned that my union work fulfilled a need that journalism didn’t. One reason I became a journalist was to make a small contribution to a better world by helping keep people informed. But as a union activist I got to make decisions and actually do things, not just report about the things other people did and said.
Because union work was intellectually fulfilling, like a hobby I was passionate about, I never expected to get anything else for it. But I’ll admit that I was deeply moved whenever members sent me thank-you cards for getting them favorable grievance settlements. How can you do better than that?
The Big Apple Calls
My union activism eventually took me beyond the trenches of Reuters, to the New York Guild and its parent union. For 12 years before I joined the Guild as Secretary-Treasurer in 2007, I was the Guild’s Local Chair, the elected rank-and-file member who runs the Executive Committee and general membership meetings of the Local. At the same time, I was Regional Vice President of our parent union, The NewsGuild-CWA, serving on its Executive Council.
As a rank-and-file activist, I was offered several jobs at the New York Guild in the late ‘90s and early 2000s but declined them because I didn’t want to leave journalism. But when Barry Lipton retired as president in 2007 and urged me to come to New York to lead the Local with Bill O’Meara, I decided the time had come to take on this new challenge.
In my eight years as the Guild’s Secretary-Treasurer, I worked very closely with President O’Meara to improve our communications and our website, to make our money grow, bargain strong contracts, increase transparency and promote unfettered discussions and member involvement. But a few accomplishments stand out.
- TIMES HEALTH CARE FUND. Our first challenge was saving the troubled Guild-Times Benefits Fund, which pays the health care claims of Guild-represented Times employees. When Bill and I took office, the Fund’s finances were in bad shape and management wanted to force Guild members into the inferior management health plan – and extract concessions from us for the privilege. It was a real mess. Some Guild members were starting to believe that the management plan, over which we would have no control, wouldn’t be so bad.But Bill and I surveyed Times members and found that they were willing to make sacrifices to save the plan. So we hired an expert and came up with a rescue package of surgical cuts and modestly higher employee contributions, which members overwhelmingly ratified. Today, the plan is still sound and meeting its needs.
- INNOVATIVE PENSION PLAN. Similarly, when Times management wanted to freeze the pension plan and leave members with just a 401(k), we were determined to find an alternative. We worked with an actuary to create the innovative Adjustable Pension Plan, which has been in place at The Times and Consumer Reports since 2013.
- INVESTING OUR ASSETS. Even as the number of Guild members was dwindling and our dues revenue with it, the Guild’s assets continued to grow for several years because of a responsible dollar-cost-average investing program that I started near the end of the Great Recession. The program has yielded the Guild about $1.75 million so far.
But the most sweeping changes I brought to the Guild were in the year since I became president.
Making Us Stronger
After members approved our plan to eliminate an unneeded paid position, I redeployed that money to put more resources on the front lines. I added an organizer, a communications specialist and a fourth rep, so that reps could pay more attention to their members. I also brought in a mobilizer to build greater member involvement. These were necessary investments to make us bigger and stronger, and I expect the Local to benefit from them now and in the future. In concrete terms, we organized the digital side of Al Jazeera America, Law360 and Jacobin magazine. We partnered with the Deadline Club, which I headed for two years, on a social media skills workshop and a night out to see the Broadway revival of The Front Page. We arranged a Mets game, mixers and film screenings. Below the surface, I changed the culture of the Guild office to a more collaborative one that includes regular meetings where problems are openly discussed.
There’s a lot more on my agenda, including launching a membership program for freelancers, a mentoring program, more community-building efforts, like panel discussions and workshops, and improving returns on our assets. As always, the focus is on what makes us bigger and stronger.