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High Country News staffers move to unionize

On January 9, 2024, staff at High Country News, a nonprofit news magazine, announced their intent to unionize.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
On January 9, 2024, staff at High Country News, a nonprofit news magazine, announced their intent to unionize.

In January, staffers at High Country News announced plans to unionize for better working conditions. High Country News has produced independent journalism about communities in the West for over five decades. Staffers say unionizing is part of an industry-wide reckoning with the toll that journalism takes on employees, the high workloads they’re expected to shoulder, and the distance this industry still needs to go to support and serve communities of color.

The HCN union will go through an election process with the National Labor Relations Board.

Molly Marcello, KZMU’s News Director, spoke with three HCN staffers and union organizers: B. “Toastie” Oaster, a staff writer on the Indigenous affairs desk, Diane Sylvain, who has been the copy editor at High Country News since the early 90s, and visual editor Roberto “Bear” Guerra.

Molly Marcello: The union is calling on High Country News to provide salary and hourly wages similar to the national industry; affordable health coverage for dependents, just-cause employment, among many other things. Can you talk more broadly about what the union aims to achieve for staff and culture at the organization, Diane?

Diane Sylvain: I’ve spent my whole working life under at-will employers. When things are going well they’re going very, very well, and when they’re bad, they’re horrid. And you really have no recourse. It’s like knowing that you live in an earthquake zone. Right now, things have been going really well for me at High Country News, and I understand the temptation of some people to not want to rock the boat, but the boat always rocks sooner or later.

And I feel like the more we have like a tightly-bound union, it just gives us a solid floor to kind of know that we're all on the same team and that we have something to stand on if things, you know, fall apart.

“Toastie” Oaster: This is such a great place to work and for me, I’ve never loved a job this much. I think a lot of people that work, at least in the editorial department, people that I work with every day, really like their jobs at HCN, and want this to be a sustainable, long-term thing.

But I think part of the problem is that we've seen a lot of turnover, especially with Indigenous and staff of color who just have better opportunities elsewhere because HCN doesn't pay at the industry standards, so another publication comes along and it’s very easy to poach a writer or an editor.

So I really want HCN to be able to retain talent so that we can keep a good team together and keep doing what we love. Because we really have a remarkable editorial staff with a really high standard of journalistic rigor, and ethics, and also just a uniquely compassionate bunch of people, we want to be able to afford to continue to work together.

Molly Marcello: I appreciate you mentioning that. It seems very clear that this is incredibly important to the union and its mission statement. It says ‘there’s a lot that remains to be done to make High Country News a more just, anti-racist, diverse, and sustainable workplace for everyone.’ And it seems like, in your collective opinion, a union is the best way to achieve that.

Roberto “Bear” Guerra: I think the organization has made great strides in recent years in prioritizing concerns around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion for instance. But it often feels like a lot of that work falls on a small number of people on staff, and that we're not all fully on the same page yet in terms of how important that work is for the organization.

You know, we feel that making some of those conversations part of the work of our union will help increase an understanding of how critical that work is for the organization and also spread the burden of that work amongst all of us. And so that is why we also are including that as part of our mission for the union.

When we talk about sustainability, though, I think we're talking about a number of things and that's part of it. This isn't just about competitive salaries, for instance, but it's also about manageable workloads. We mentioned before that some of our challenges are industry-wide challenges. I am sure, Molly, that you can also appreciate this, that in this industry, we all work very hard, you know, unfortunately, I think there's historically been an attitude of, ‘well, that's par for the course.’

Diane Sylvain: Yeah, the turnover has been in every department. It's just hard to like always be seeing these great people leave in every department, scramble for replacement, get them in, and just absolutely fall in love with them and with what they're doing. And then the next thing you know, they're gone. And I think we're all really tired of that.

Molly Marcello: So earlier this month, the executive director of High Country News emailed staff to announce that he would not voluntarily recognize the union. There's something I wanted to point out here, which is that your reporting in the magazine often covers labor issues across the West, and here you all are in your own labor movement yourselves. What do you make of that?

“Toastie” Oaster: Well, I think we had all hoped that HCN leadership would walk the talk, you know when it came time to go public and launch our union efforts. And so it's been disappointing to see that that's not been the case, especially considering what you've just mentioned that, you know, we go out and we cover labor movements across the West and we write about how important they are. We all care, and then we come back home to our own newsroom and address these labor issues, and it's a different situation.

Roberto “Bear” Guerra: I think also it speaks to, again, some industry-wide similarities, which are actually more related to nonprofit organizations. A lot of the labor movements we've covered are within the environmental movement, or other kind of conservation movements, or things like that, that overlap with some of our broader coverage areas.

Diane actually really put this well in a response that she had to one of our board members. He sent us a note that was opposed to the union, and I'm not going to quote it exactly, but it was to the extent of, you know, nonprofits, unfortunately, often exploit our idealism and our passion for the work. And I think that that's also what we see in other labor movements and unfortunately feel at times here at HCN. And I don't blame that on this organization in particular, I just think that that is a culture that has become somewhat widespread, and again, par for the course in nonprofit organizations a lot.

Diane Sylvain: Yes, there always is that thing, we're all idealists, we're all passionate about not just our causes, but about the work we do wanting to make beautiful, good work, work that we respect. And that's hugely important, but it can be sort of a thing like, ‘Well, you're doing this for love.’ And it's like, well, yeah, but I also, you know, I can't pay my electric bill with love, you know, they no longer accept it for some reason. It's true across the board for every nonprofit that anyone I know has ever worked for.

Molly Marcello: The High Country News Union is organizing with the Communication Workers of America under the Denver News Guild, which also includes the Denver Post and Casper Star Tribune. Your union has also pointed to other nonprofit newsrooms that have gone union, like ProPublica. How do you see HCN Union fitting into a larger national trend?

Diane Sylvain: I think there's kind of been, at least for me, there's been sort of encouragement in seeing that it is happening. It just kind of didn't occur to me that it was possible. And then I'm looking around and I'm, of course, copyediting these stories and going ‘Hey, there's no reason we can't do this.’ You know, it is happening and, you know, the time is now. Why wait?

“Toastie” Oaster: Yeah, and we've just seen such a remarkable outpouring of support and care from people at other publications that have unionized and from readers and from sources. I mean, people have just been coming out of the woodwork to vocalize their support for us. And it's been really overwhelming in a wonderful way to see, to feel that we are part of this bigger movement and that we have each other's backs, not just a wall-to-wall within HCN, but around the industry and beyond, even across industries, you know, there is a movement happening where workers are standing up for their rights, and we're part of that, and it really feels wonderful.

Molly Marcello: Thank you all so much for taking the time with us today. Any last words before we go, Bear?

Roberto “Bear” Guerra: I would say that we'd really encourage if any of our readers are out there and hear this, we'd really encourage them that if you do have any questions about it to reach out to us, any of us at the union. Our website is hcnunion.org. We’d love to see

you sign our letter of support if you support us, but if you have any questions about this effort to really reach out to us.

“Toastie” Oaster: Yeah, I really appreciate being here, and I do really see this as an important step in like Bear was talking about, you know, a greater set of industry-wide challenges. We need journalism and we need really good journalism like HCN produces, and we want to keep producing it, and we need to be able to do that under stable, sustainable conditions, and that's a much bigger problem than HCN is having, that's an industry-wide issue. We need the news, and we need trustworthy news, and reporters need to be able to do their jobs well, and so do editors and photojournalists. So there's a bigger reckoning that's happening that, you know, I think we all need to be really attentive to and participating in as positive a way as we can. And I think the HCN union is part of that, hopefully, part of the solution.

The executive director at High Country News did not return KZMU’s request for comment. 

Copyright 2024 KZMU. To see more, visit KZMU.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Molly Marcello