Guild President Szekely bids farewell with call to service
Dear Guild Members,
At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 2, I will have no responsibilities to the Guild for the first time in more than 30 years. Instead, I'll get to join the thousands of members who do their jobs and pursue their careers while enjoying the rights and benefits the Guild has negotiated for them. It's going to take some getting used to.
It wasn’t my plan to spend most of my working life as a union leader and activist. But then, I’m pretty sure none of the other Guild leaders I’ve met over the decades started their careers with an eye toward getting sidetracked into union work. It’s something you stumble into, and the gravitational force of doing service for your co-workers takes it from there.
At the outset of my working life, I was passionate about journalism and nothing else. But along the way my passion came to a fork in the road. So I took it.
My path to activism was fairly typical. It gripped me gradually. First I was drafted onto a bargaining committee. Then I wrote a couple of shop papers. And, when our unit chair left to take another job, I joined a couple of my fellow accidental activists to fill the void.
'The Guild needs you, and it can become stronger only if members in every workplace take an active role.'
My deep, dark secret is that when I was fairly new at Reuters, in the early to middle '80s, I actually got more of a professional charge out of being a Guild activist than I did from my job. Later, my work got more interesting, but by then it was too late. I found that serving my co-workers was gratifying and fulfilling, like nothing I’d ever done. I couldn’t stop. Besides, I was getting good at it.
Most of the Guild stewards and officers I’ve met also were motivated by justice, fairness and service. They do what they do because they believe strongly in those values. Doing the right thing for others is the right thing for them.
As a volunteer-driven organization, the Guild needs the service of its members. I urge every member to give the Guild a little of your time, at least for part of your career. As my once and future Reuters colleague, Dan Trotta, put it, “Years ago, there were Guild activists I never met who fought for the benefits I have today. I figure I owe it to those who come after me to do the same for them.”
CHOOSING BETWEEN JOURNALISM AND ACTIVISM
If there was a pivotal point in my professional life, it was at the Reuters Washington Bureau in 1989, when I was given two very different opportunities at the same time. On the one hand, Reuters offered me the Boston bureau, a fairly prestigious one-person gig in those days, and in a city I lived in and loved during and after college. On the other, the Guild offered me a six-month stint as an organizer in New York. After a few days of agonizing, I chose the latter, knowing that Reuters would probably never offer me another opportunity like that again. I never regretted it.
My journalism career may have been more subdued than it otherwise would have been, but the positive difference I was able to make in the lives of so many members more than made up for it.
At Reuters, hundreds of members were better off over the years because of contractual provisions, grievances and settlements that I had a hand in during my 17 years as unit chair. But what I'm most proud of is having created a nationwide network of stewards that’s still around, and is the main reason for the Guild's enduring strength at Reuters.
When I moved to New York to become secretary-treasurer in 2007, I worked with former President Bill O’Meara to save the Guild’s independent health care plan at The New York Times, which was on life support and in management's cross-hairs at the time. Several hundred members are benefiting from our work today. But our enduring innovation was working with an actuary to develop the adjustable pension plan, which saved defined benefit pensions at The Times and Consumer Reports.
CREATING A COLLABORATIVE CULTURE
As president since September 2015, I beefed up our staff to better organize new members, mobilize our current ones and get our message out to the press and on social media. We organized three new workplaces (with more in the pipeline), saved El Diario’s print publication from a planned demise, won nine contracts and responsibly invested our savings. We also put in place processes to upgrade our website and to implement new database software that will make our local much more efficient.
What I’m most proud of, however, was encouraging more collaboration among Guild staff. I'm convinced it made our local stronger in ways that most members will never know. Reps consult one another more often on bargaining and contract enforcement issues, there is more teamwork and the dedication level is way up – often I'd leave the office at 9 p.m. and the place would still be humming.
Our union is lucky to have a smart, dedicated and motivated staff, and we need to preserve its collaborative culture. That’s why one of my last acts as president was to make sure that all of our staff members have the same “just cause” job protection that Guild members have.
When you set about to change the way things are done, everything takes longer than you expect, so I wish I could have done more. And, of course, there are things I had planned to do in the next three years that I’m leaving on the drawing board.
'The new direction we set is here to stay, and I'm proud to have been able to contribute.'
Serving as Guild president for the past 16 months has been a great honor and a terrifically rewarding experience. I challenged myself, and so did others, to do things we'd never done before at a time when business as usual didn't work anymore. This job requires you to pull your brain in several directions at once, and keep pace with the quick minds of our staff and activists.
Although the work is far from complete, we put in place strategies that are already adding members and making the Guild a stronger, more member-involved union. The new direction we set is here to stay, and I'm proud to have been able to contribute.
I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to the staff and Guild activists who helped make it happen, and to all Guild members who took an interest their union. Please keep it up. And if you haven’t been active in the Guild, now would be a good time to start. The Guild needs you, and it can become stronger only if members in every workplace take an active role.
After taking a couple of months off, I’m going to resume my journalism career at Reuters in Washington or New York. Either way, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to email me.
Meanwhile, I wish you a happy 2017, and I hope you appreciate, as I do, what a blessing it is to be a Guild member.
The NewsGuild of New York
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