On Wednesday night (July 22), unionized employees of the Boston Globe—members of the Boston Newspaper Guild—voted 366 to 179 to accept massive wage and benefit cuts in order keep the venerable, 137-year old newspaper afloat.
This outcome followed an earlier vote, more than a month ago, where the membership narrowly (by a margin of 12 votes) turned down a similar contract offer. The difference between that vote and this one was, ostensibly, the result of some slight movement on the company’s part and, alas, a crushing sense of dread on the part of the Guild’s 700 members, which include editorial, advertising and clerical staff. The concessions include significant pay cuts, forced furloughs and uncompensated vacation leave, elimination of job security provisions and severe slashing of the health and pension benefits. In short, it’s an across-the-board reduction of the entire collective bargaining package, reminiscent of the succession of staggering cuts the UAW (United Auto Workers) has been forced to make ever since the mid-1990s.Even with the massive concessions, the Globe (owned by the New York Times Company), is not out of the woods.
According to Guild president Dan Totten, the Times Co. had announced going into negotiations that, at the very minimum, it needed a $20 million payroll reduction to avoid shutting down the paper. It was a grim scenario.Still, some skeptics have suggested that it’s all part of an elaborate power-play to bust the union, that because the newspaper is on the market—with the Times Co. aggressively courting potential buyers—the company was looking to reduce its contractual liability to make the acquisition more attractive. Ultimately, despite the suspicions, mutual recriminations, and dragging out of negotiations for more than three months, Guild members had little choice but ratifying the agreement. After all, what were their options? Vote it down and dare the Globe to go out of business? People need to work, and they’ll do practically anything to avoid economic suicide.
To that point, it should be remembered that employees of the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear facility petitioned the government to allow them to return to work after the accident even though the plant was classified as radioactively “contaminated.” Why would they risk returning to a dangerous facility? Because they needed the work. Two phenomena continue to defy explanation. One is working people who gloat when they hear that union members (like the Guild or UAW) are forced to make concessions to management. The other is low or low-middle-class workers who stubbornly oppose raising the taxes of the very wealthy.
Arguably, given the eccentricities of human nature, you can almost understand the first phenomenon. You can write it off to petty jealously or resentment. You can put yourself in their place and more or less understand how non-union workers would experience a jolt of satisfaction at seeing their better compensated unionized brethren get “payback.” Still, it’s a bizarre and lamentable mindset. Lemon-sucking right-wing Republicans wanting to see a union get hammered is bad enough, but underpaid, under-insured working people wanting to see it happen is not only disappointing, it’s self-defeating. The second phenomenon is more disturbing. Just as there is something refreshingly healthy and life-affirming about wanting the very rich to pay more taxes, there’s something morbid and sick about not wanting it. For working people earning $40,000 annually it should be a natural reflex—a survival instinct—to want investment bankers earning $10 million to pay more taxes. And we’re not discussing economic theories here, with their attendant formulas, graphs, and charts. We’re talking about one’s fundamental outlook on the world. We’re talking about the kind of egalitarianism that puts a fire in the belly of an underdog and causes him to rejoice when the extravagantly privileged are forced to acknowledge their shared humanity.
A poor man fighting on behalf of the wealthy—doing all he can to help the rich get richer—is not only irrational, it’s self-destructive. It’s like the fox going out and buying running shoes for the hounds. Some years ago I had a conversation with “Fred” at the union hall. Fred was a shipping checker working in a warehouse, I was a union rep. We were friends. I knew his family. The subject of tax brackets arose, and I was stunned and annoyed when he declared, almost defiantly, that he was opposed to the wealthy paying more taxes.
Fred was an Army veteran, a patriot, a self-described “libertarian,” and a diligent worker respected by his peers, whose dream was to start his own landscaping business. It gives me no pleasure to admit that, because I didn’t have the patience to approach the issue by nibbling around its edges, I went straight for the jugular. I told Fred that Wall Street loves fools like him. They love gullible, simple-minded poor people who work hard, pay their taxes, and, yet, oppose forcing these parasitic Wall Street bastards to part with their money. “They view you as the perfect stooge,” I told him. “A poor man fighting for the interests of the rich.” Granted, what I said was self-righteous and overheated, but it got the point across.
However, Fred’s answer still confounds and haunts me. He calmly said, “I plan to have my own business someday, and I don’t want the government taking my money.”
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net