In 1978, about 20 percent of workers in the newspaper industry were unionized. Howard Stanger, a historian of labor relations at Canisius College, estimates that the figure today is less than 7 percent in the private sector. This April, the editorial staff of Gawker Media announced their intention to form a union and began the process of signing authorization cards. Other smaller outlets, like Truthout, In These Times, and the Center for Investigative Reporting have followed a similar path in recent years. We spoke with Stanger about the history of upheavals in the industry that have shaped digital native newsrooms today.

Nehring: What are some of the early changes in how newspapers were printed that changed labor relations?

Stanger: Looking back to 1975, there was, on one hand, some stability in terms of daily newspapers. But beneath the stability there were a lot of changes and a couple of technology revolutions. Before the 1970s you’d have all these printing trades — typographers, pressmen, etc. Those powerful unions, like the typographical union, could shut down newspapers, and they did in New York City. “Hot type” was when they used lead to set the type. One person would make the impressions to go to the pressroom. In the 1970s “cold type” started — basically printing instead of using hot lead that would be cast into newsprint.

Nehring: How did this affect unions?

Stanger: In a number of newspapers, labor and management negotiated lifetime employment pacts as part of long-term collective bargaining agreements to mitigate the impact of new technology as the industry shifted from “hot type” to “cold type.” My research found that, at the high point, the Columbus Typographical Union represented about 500 printers at the Columbus Dispatch, but after the implementation of computerization and an employment security agreement, only 50 printers remained by around 1990. This story played out in many newspapers across the country in the 1970s and 1980s.

New production and communications technologies have allowed newspapers to set up production facilities elsewhere. So there was a change of spatial relations that divided workers physically and by occupation: newspaper management retained an editorial staff downtown and moved production facilities to the suburbs to take advantage of cheaper land, better facility layouts, and more efficient distribution. For instance the New York Times has kept its editorial offices in Midtown Manhattan but produces newspapers in Queens and elsewhere.

The period from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s was dynamic period in newspaper industry labor relations that had the effect of weakening unions. In addition to new technologies that first weakened the production unions and later the (then) Newspaper Guild and Teamsters, the industry consolidated and came to be dominated by publicly-traded companies that bowed to Wall Street’s growth and profit-margin imperatives. Management became more aggressive in demanding concessions from unions and thwarting organizing drives. It is no wonder that strike activity rose and peaked in the 1970s. But strikes were hard to win and have, with some exceptions, are now rare. Two recessions — 2001 and 2008 — and the rise of pure digital businesses that sucked the industry’s lifeblood — advertising revenues — after 2005 not only upended the industry, but continued to weaken unions and worsened the quality of jobs for newspaper employers, especially for reporters, which a recent Pew poll found to be the worst job in America.

Nehring: And then the Internet was born and newsroom employment collapsed. How did that change the relationship to management?

Stanger: Newsroom employment in the mid 1970s actually increased. But after 2000 you see the dramatic decrease. There was the recession of 2000 and the rise of online ads. The 21st century digital revolution killed off the main source of the newspaper industry’s revenue and has since had newspaper and media executives scrambling to find a viable business model to replace the old, advertising revenue-based one. In addition, the nature of employment has changed. Tens of thousands of jobs in the traditional newspaper sector have been lost, including those at the large metros where unions have traditionally been organized. New ones have been created at both traditional newspapers (notably on the digital side) and the newer, smaller native online entities, but these start-ups have not yet proven to be durable and generally come with smaller economic packages and fewer employment protections. The Gawker case is interesting in that employees have expressed their desire to improve their jobs and career prospects through a union. Exactly how collective bargaining would be similar to or different from a traditional newspaper newsroom remains to be seen. But as the ongoing struggles by retail workers, adjunct professors, “bug testers” at Microsoft, and other service workers reveal, unionization may not be the only way that workers can improve their economic conditions.

Nehring: How do you think the newsroom workforce is different today?

Before the bloodletting in newsroom employment after the year 2000, the typical newspaper employee would be considered a veteran. Now you have much more youth who might not consider staying in one place for a very long time. To get a union you have to be around for the fight. And you have to stick around for the fight.

Today’s news has less experience with unions. Since unions represent fewer workers than they did decades ago, they most likely have not worked in a unionized workplace or have family members who do. They also have been working in a weak US labor market that doesn’t inspire militancy needed to improve their job quality. Moreover, as professionals in more high-tech media segments, they self-identify as white-collar professionals in the creative class and not members of the working class. This is a problem that has affected the Newspaper Guild since its founding in the early 1930s. Those journalists saw themselves as independent-minded professionals distinct from the blue-collar workers who acted collectively and got ink on their hands. Their jobs often placed them near power and glamour, which inspired a form of rugged individualism. Something similar might be going on today.

Nehring: How is what happened at Gawker important?

Stanger: This is important because most 20- or 30-somethings know Gawker. It’s awfully hard to organize a union, especially when the employer fights the workers. In Gawker’s case it seems — so far — that the employees want a union and the CEO doesn’t seem to mind. This is rare in the United States. Contrary to popular opinion, unions can improve the functioning of the workplace, but there is a long history of anti-unionism in the US that has proved to be an obstacle.

Not unlike other workers, including those in high-tech, media workers today labor under precarious conditions, which is one precondition for wanting a union. For decades, workers have experienced flat wage growth, declining benefits, and a lack of voice in the workplace. This has occurred in the context of growing wealth and income inequality and a political system that seems to be taken over by moneyed interests.

Traditionally, unions were the main counterweight to corporate power, but with unions in decline (under 7 percent of the private sector workforce are union members; about 11 percent overall) and demonized by the media and elected officials of both parties, workers may have to take direct action to improve their conditions…. Who better than media workers to change the narrative about the important role that unions play — in the workplace, economy and politics — for both union and non-union workers alike? For example, unions have historically won higher wages and benefits, a grievance procedure that gives workers a voice, and have represented working people in the political arena. Gains for union members were shared with non-union employees whose employers matched employment packages in the union sector to be competitive in the labor market and to prevent unions from organizing their workplaces.

As unions have declined, most workers — union and nonunion alike — have suffered economically, socially, and politically. While unions are not for everyone, most workers will benefit from them, often without them realizing it.

This Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.