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  • Gabriel San Roman

Slingshot: OC Register Reporters Go Union, Defy Newspaper's History!

Another ominous sign appeared to surface in January for a legacy newspaper on the brink.

In addition to shrinking page counts and Groupon Sunday subscriptions offered at a bottom-barrel price befitting the Anaheim Indoor Swap Meet’s 89-cent store, Orange County Register journalists cleared out of their Platinum Triangle office in Anaheim last month. These small, rented quarters were already a retreat from the paper's iconic five-story Grand Avenue headquarters in Santa Ana, built in the 1980s when the paper’s Sunday edition was as thick as a baseball bat.

The coronavirus pandemic shifted reporters to working remotely last year, but the move to their printing plant building in Anaheim on Lewis Street still felt like another devastating blow to an OC media landscape that can ill-afford more aridness.

And then, the historically unthinkable happened.

Register journalists, as part of the Southern California News Group Guild, announced that they had formed a new union.

According to their website, the SCNG Guild—the representative voice of 11 newspapers—wants to have a say in the workplace and hopes to reverse the devastating trends of layoffs and turnovers that have left remaining reporters underpaid and stretched far too thin for far too long.

(How thin? The Register used to have two reporters for Anaheim and SanTana apiece as recently as a decade ago. Today? The swath of Anaheim reporter Alicia Robinson's bylines now covers Irvine, Costa Mesa, county government and seemingly anything in between).

“Readers need the services we provide more than ever,” reads SCNG Guild's Feb. 24 statement. “Our online traffic is surging, and our digital subscriptions are up. The public is clamoring for information that can help them and their families stay healthy and safe.”

The Register--long a bastion of conservatism in Orange County, and, by extension, anti-unionism--is now the biggest member of the SCNG Guild, which would become a local of The NewsGuild-CWA.

It's enough to imagine Raymond Cyrus Hoiles, the quarrelsome libertarian founder of Freedom Communications who purchased the Santa Ana Register in 1935, tossing and turning in his coffin box. The commotion would probably sound a lot like Harrison Gray Otis' clattering bones when Los Angeles Times workers finally bucked his legacy by forming a union three years ago.

Hoiles, who led the Register until his death in 1970, was unabashedly against any whiff of unionism. And he let his readers know it, too. “Whom Will a Worker Obey?” asked Hoiles in a Jun. 25, 1937 column in the paper. He lambasted collective bargaining advocates for casting a spell over “poor, honest” working folks who didn't know any better.

“They invariably believe that something can be had for nothing; that the collective bargaining dictator is a 'Santa Claus' and has a magical way of distributing more than is being produced,” wrote Hoiles. “It is, of course, a most revolutionary and impossible condition that never has worked and is contrary to the very first law of life.”

Hoiles famously had his own newspaper chain operate under grandiose editorial guidelines. "Here is Our Policy" rested upon the three pillars of the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Declaration of Independence. It professed a hostility to socialism in all its forms, which somehow included New Deal politics that saved capitalism from itself.

After Hoiles' death, Freedom Communications carried on with the Register in one form or another until 2016 when MediaNews Group (doing business as Digital First Media) acquired it in a bankruptcy sale. Owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that loves to slash more than Jason Voorhees at Camp Crystal Lake, SCNG continued shrinking in staff yet still growing in profits. A confidential leak of company financials showed an 8 percent profit margin in 2017, good for $23 million.

That begged a new twist on an old question: whom will a worker disobey--or at least organize against? In the age of Alden, Hoiles's lofty libertarianism doesn't mesh with the reality of an ownership distributing less to its workers despite what's being reaped in profits, especially as the Guild reportedly represents some making as little as $15 per hour.

But the union announcement barely registered a blip, with few outlets reporting on it and none mentioning Hoiles' history.

There will be opportunities to pick up on the story later on. Should MediaNews Group not voluntarily recognize the union (of course they won’t!) workers could win formal recognition with a simple majority vote.

After that, contract negotiations would start. A long and pivotal path awaits. Hoiles could never have imagined such a day, but the best hopes for the future of the Register rests in the hands of its unionized reporters.

- Gabriel San Román

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Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina

Mouse Muckraker

It came as a spontaneous suggestion a year ago to an age-old question: what do you want to do for dinner? My girlfriend and I had learned about a new decadent hot dog being served up at the Refreshment Corner on Main Street. She suggested it on a whim, so off we went. We ordered dinner and grabbed a table outside. The hot dogs, covered in creamy mac n' cheese with a thick dusting of pulverized Flamin' Hot Cheetos on top, proved a let down. The toppings were great, but the flimsy, stale bun bulged under the weight of them.

That same day, former President Donald Trump tried to reassure the nation that coronavirus was under control. But just two days later, Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official, sang another tune during a press conference.

"Disruption to everyday life might be severe," she said. "While I didn’t think they were at risk right now, we as a family ought to be preparing for significant disruption to our lives."

Almost a year later and more than half-a-million lives lost, Messonnier proved mantic. Disneyland shuttered two weeks after our last supper and hasn't reopened since.

A Touch of Disney, a ticketed food and drink event, beckons the faithful next month at California Adventure, but some epidemiologists are sounding an alarm. Though coronavirus cases fell dramatically through February, they've come to a plateau nationwide that places the weekly average at around the same rate as last summer's surge.

California now hosts a homegrown variant that's on par with other such strains found in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. Great! Experts are also concerned that the UK variant will become dominate nationwide by mid to late March, leading to a possible Spring surge.

Sorry, Mickey. You're going to have to eat that Monte Cristo sandwich without us! And for a taste of Disney in the form of a Dole Whip, there's always Glee's Donuts and Burgers in Anacrime!

In Memoriam

This weekend, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Maestro Gabriel Zavala from Covid-19. He was a cultural titan of Anaheim, a mariachi musician who performed with Los Hermanos Zavala decades ago at community celebrations honoring our people’s early achievements, like the opening of community center or a church in La Colonia Independencia.

Maestro immigrated to Anaheim from Mexico, entertaining dreams of becoming a rock star. In time, he shifted back towards mariachi music and built community through his Rhythmo Mariachi Academy, teaching our most revered traditions to new generations of Anaheimers. The academy also partnered with Anaheim's schools, providing for culturally relevant arts education.

Every year, we celebrated his work at the Pearson Park Amphitheater where Rhythmo faithfully presented its mariachi festivals. The last time I saw Maestro on stage was in the summer of 2019 during the debut of Canto de Anaheim, a play that recounted the city’s Mexican-American history.

Before that, I visited his academy in 2015 to write a story ahead of the mariachi festival that year. The warehouse practice space was full of life, character and cultura. My piece ended with his following words:

“I don't do this for money. I want the students to remember a man who wanted to construct a better world, one kid at a time.”

And that’s how Maestro shall be remembered. #qepd

Lead photo: Reggie Rack Awaits its Sunday Stacks / By Gabriel San Roman

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