The yin and yang of newspaper unions
The question of the proper role for unions at newspapers evoked vigorous comment at the prior post, which mentioned that a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in many cases would permit a company to walk away from its labor agreements. I said then, as I say now, that archaic union contracts unnecessarily compromise the efficient operation of some newspapers at a time they are fighting for their lives.
But that was not, and is not, to say that I think unions are anything close to the major reason newspapers are in trouble.
In the more than 3½ years I have been writing this blog, I have cited demographic trends, technological developments, adverse economic circumstances, financial recklessness, managerial myopia and prodigious arrogance in virtually every quarter of the industry for the troubles that threaten to put some newspapers into bankruptcy and others out of business.
Now that the industry is in an epic mess, everyone who wants to keep her job and preserve a vigorous press needs to stop trying to preserve a retrospective and romanticized vision of the newspaper business and to get real about such problems as collapsing readership and plunging revenues.
To be sure, many newspapers with little or no union representation got into trouble all by themselves.
At other newspapers, however, unions are impeding progress by attempting to sustain:
:: Arbitrary staffing requirements in pressrooms, mailrooms and the fleet, which block efficiencies in production and distribution.
:: Jurisdictional prerogatives that prevent the efficient and strategic integration of print and interactive media. Several papers literally have to segregate their online staffs on a separate floor or in a different building to appease their unions. Also needing to be scrapped are the old rules that prevent reporters from carrying a camera and videographers from writing a story.
:: Salary-based compensation for salespeople, instead of commission-weighted systems that would enable newspapers to pay competitive compensation to productive reps while weeding out worn-out order takers. Requirements that sales reps get paid overtime for taking a client to dinner have got to go, too.
Last but not least, there is the issue of seniority, where the yin and yang of unions is most acute.
It is not constructive when labor contracts force a newspaper to lay off younger workers with crucial multimedia skills while retaining older staffers who can’t, or won’t, adapt to the modern digital environment. This is not to say older workers can’t be as handy with new media as the youngest pup in the newsroom, but only that management needs maximum flexibility in selecting the staffers it can afford to keep.
On the other hand, it has been appalling to see so many friends and former colleagues prematurely ejected from productive careers in the interests of clearing the way for younger, cheaper talent.
What’s the right answer? Unions should abandon strict seniority in return for enriched separation packages for workers of a certain age or with a certain number of years on the job.
This exemplifies the ideal role for unions: Protecting individuals without arbitrarily interfering with the rightful prerogatives of management.
None of these comments should be interpreted as antipathy for unions. I understand and respect the contributions that unions have made over the years to the professionalism of the newspaper industry. They obtained decent pay and benefits for pressmen, truck drivers, ad takers, secretaries, journalists and almost everyone else in the building.
With the industry in extremis, unions are needed now more than ever to ensure decent compensation for all members and to protect the legitimate rights of individual workers who otherwise would be unable to defend themsevles.
But unions should put their energy into fighting the proper fights and stop wasting time on the wrong ones.