Unions and the Newspaper Crisis

What do you do when your bosses say they needs to slash your wages by 23%, otherwise the business will go belly up?  Worse, what do you say when they tell you there’s no guarantee these cuts will be enough to save it?

If you’re a non-union worker, you basically have two choices:  (1) swallow your pride, accept the staggering reduction, go home and tell your wife to start clipping coupons, or (2) quit your job and take your chances on finding a better one.

If you’re a union worker, there’s a third choice.  Because you have a contract in place, one that covers wages, benefits and working conditions, and is registered with the Department of Labor, management cannot make abrupt and arbitrary changes.  While the company has the right to propose massive pay-cuts, union employees have the right—indeed, the obligation—to vote on them.

This end-of-the-world scenario was what the union employees of the Boston Globe recently had presented to them.  Apparently, the Globe (owned by the New York Times Corp.) has been losing money at such an alarming rate—most of it in plummeting advertising revenue—management believed its only option was to seek wage and benefit concessions.

But on June 8, in something of a show of defiance, members of the Boston Newspaper Guild, the largest of several unions affiliated with the Globe, by a margin of 277 to 265, voted to reject the pay-cuts.  Instead, Guild members urged management and union to get back to the table and continue talking.

While acknowledging the grave financial crisis facing the paper, the union complained that Globe management hadn’t taken a close enough look at other remedies, that these sweeping cuts were precipitous.  Believing there were other alternatives available, the Guild’s membership insisted on continuing discussions.

Another complaint:  Globe management—despite its promise of “mutual sacrifice” and “sharing the pain”—was taking a far lesser hit than the workers were taking, a claim Globe executives deny.  This is not a groundless charge.  When a crisis looms, management tends to protect its own, evidenced by the generous bonuses Wall Street handed out, even in the face of a financial melt-down.

As severe and traumatic as the proposed cuts were, no one can say they weren’t totally unanticipated.  As recently as last April, Globe management insisted on $20 million in annual wage and benefit concessions, threatening to go out of business if they didn’t get them.  Those earlier concessions were the backdrop to the current dispute.

Clearly, the Globe didn’t want more talks.  In their view, the discussion stage of this tramp was over and the “action” stage was underway.  Accordingly, Globe management officially declared negotiations at an impasse and notified the union it intended to implement unilateral wage reductions.

The Newspaper Guild responded by filing a ULP (unfair labor practice) charge with the NLRB, arguing that a formal impasse had not been reached, that good-faith negotiations should continue, and that there was still a “reasonable” prospect of a settlement.

Fortunately, despite their earlier adamant refusals, Globe management was eventually persuaded to return to the table.  On June 17, it was announced that the parties would continue discussions by telephone and planned to reconvene face-to-face meetings on Monday, June 22.

The bad news is that the Globe stuck to its guns and began implementing unilateral pay-cuts on Sunday, June 21.  And because of some odd bylaw language, Guild members will not be allowed to vote on a new agreement for 30 days, meaning that, even if approved, they lose nearly one-fourth of their earnings for at least a month.

It’s hard to find a genuine “villain” in this narrative.  Obviously, a company hemorrhaging money is in no position to reward its employees.  Whether its problems were caused by bad management or bad luck is more or less irrelevant.  When you’re broke, you’re broke.

Still, you can’t blame Guild members for being skeptical or even hostile.  After all, the history of collective bargaining is nothing if not a sorry tableau of corporate greed and deceit.  Call it cynical or disdainful, but it’s true nonetheless:  management never shares one nickel more than it’s forced to share.  Unions have been so conditioned to distrusting management, it’s now part of their DNA.

When there’s a mess like the one at the Boston Globe, you can’t fault these union members for struggling to find a way out.  You can’t blame them for trying to salvage something.  All you can do is be thankful you’re not in their shoes.

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


David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com