By Peter Elkind, editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- Fearful of layoffs and unhappy with work conditions, employees at a unit of Bloomberg LP, the former New York City mayor's private data-and-media giant, have launched a campaign to unionize, Fortune has learned.
The drive, to join Local 32035 of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, involves about a hundred salaried data analysts at Bloomberg's large campus in Skillman, N.J. They work for the company's struggling Bloomberg Law division. If successful, it would be the first time any group of Bloomberg employees has voted to join a union.
Bloomberg spokesman Ty Trippet declined to comment.
Success in organizing the Bloomberg employees would represent a boost for newspaper guilds. Unions in the industry have lost leverage as change has ripped through the news business over the past decade. (Employees at Fortune's publisher, Time Inc., are represented by a guild.)
Bloomberg has historically been inhospitable to organized labor. A 2004 drive to organize the company's New York headquarters staff ultimately fizzled without a vote.
The company, which employs more than 15,000, acquired its only union in 2011, with the $992 million purchase of the Bureau of National Affairs, which is based in suburban Washington, D.C. and publishes newsletters and reports on business, law, and government. About 700 of BNA's workers belong to two Newspaper Guild bargaining units, which have represented workers there for decades.
In a 2013 cost-cutting move after the acquisition, Bloomberg consolidated BLAW (as its legal-data service is known) with BNA in Washington, resulting in about 80 layoffs.
Now BLAW's data-entry employees, who remained on the New Jersey campus with the rest of the company's large global-data staff, are weighing whether to also join the BNA union.
MORE: The trouble at Bloomberg
The BLAW data workers in Skillman acquire legal material, including court dockets and case information, and put it into machine-readable electronic format for the data service, which is sold to lawyers through a subscription website. About half of them are attorneys themselves.
Tom McGlaughlin, a lawyer and BLAW data analyst who launched the organizing drive in mid-February, says he is close to collecting signed authorization cards from the 30% of employees needed under federal labor law to trigger a unionization vote.
Paul Reilly, a Guild representative who works with the BNA workers and is backing the Bloomberg drive, says the union will seek an election when it's got "a solid majority" of the Skillman employees in favor of organizing.
"They want a voice," says Reilly, of the Bloomberg workers. "Right now they're part of a huge corporation. They have no say what happens to them in their work lives, and we're going to try to give it to them."
Historically, Bloomberg has been an unusual workplace, where employees were well-paid, received generous benefits, and enjoyed free food, but also complained of brutal work hours and highly demanding bosses. For years, the company had a "no-layoffs" policy. That ended in 2009.
McGlaughlin says employee concern in his group increased after last year's BLAW layoffs. More recently, he says, the company retained consultants from KPMG to find ways to cut costs, boosting worries about more job reductions. "In a time of feared impending layoffs, voting to authorize the News Guild to collectively bargain on our behalf could save our jobs," McGlaughlin wrote to his colleagues, seeking their support for a union vote.
Many employees are also unhappy with their treatment, he adds. "They can be pretty abusive at times here. There's a contingent of folks that would like to have some work rules and a grievance procedure. Bloomberg's work system was set up to not have any work rules. They want to squeeze as much out of employees as they can."
In a Feb. 26 email sent to BLAW "content operations" employees through the Bloomberg terminal and obtained by Fortune, BLAW Content Operations Manager Neil O'Grady discouraged workers from joining the union. Wrote O'Grady, "… We want you to know where we stand: given our unique culture, we don't think having a union here makes sense for the company or our employees, and we hope that you will carefully consider all the facts before deciding whether or not to sign a union card."
O'Grady issued warnings about signing a union-authorization card, comparing it to "signing a power of attorney -- you are giving the union the right to represent you and act on your behalf ... it can bind the signer to certain obligations and responsibilities to the union," and "commit an employee to pay initiation fees, union dues, assessments and other obligations."
Added O'Grady: "We value our working relationship with our employees and our ability to work together on issues, rather than through an outside organization."
Guild representative Reilly says O'Grady's warnings are simply "not true. Signing the card just authorizes the Guild to seek an election. You can sign the card and vote against the union if you want."
In an e-mailed response to colleagues, McGlaughlin, citing the KPMG consultants, offered his own warning: "My friends, the writing is on the wall … holding a union election, we stand a better chance of preserving our jobs than if we trust the promises of a management who can fire us 'at will.' If we elect to have the union collectively bargain for us, we will also be governed by a collective bargaining agreement with clear work rules and much greater job security.
"Management says they don't want a union because they want to work 'with us.' What we should be afraid of is that they actually want to work 'without us.'"
Research assistance by Marty Jones
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