Sunday, September 21, 2008

The yin and yang of newspaper unions

Unions indeed are part of the problem for some of the newspapers struggling to survive the historic distress that has rocked their world. But unions, imperfect as they may be, help to level the playing field for workers. They are valuable and we need to protect them.

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.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Evil Pundit said...

Bloggers can carry a camera and write a story. They don't need permission from unions or management.

I don't see how newspapers can survive. Nor do I see any reason why their demise would be a bad thing.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before we go on another tear about unions, let us look at the other side -- the non union papers. The Newark Star-Ledger has a no-layoff pledge given in more generous times to all staff that agreed not to unionize. As long as unions were not part of the deal, Newhouse would guarantee its employees jobs for life.
Now see how that pledge has come back to haunt Newhouse in this period of change and economic turmoil. Newark is unable to get rid of excess staff, and now is teetering.
Newark is not alone. If you look for larded, contented and unchallenged staff, give me a non-union paper every time. Management has bent sideways to keep staff happy, lavishing them with benefits and salary increases to keep the union organizers away.
The point of all this I also wish to make is that it is not really the employees who should be responsible for the problems newspapers face. This is not a failure of journalism, or a lack of creativity by the staff. It is, I believe, a massive failure of management. It is the old Peter Principle -- people rise to their level of incompetence. A wholesale cleaning out of the top staffs of newspapers is what should follow, not any more mindless percentage purging of the staffs.

7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, I belong to a union which

-- grieved to include the online staff in the News Division and bargaining unit a decade ago, raising their pay considerably and bringing them into the newsroom

-- negotiated the terms under which reporters carry video cameras: Give them training.

-- had no choice but to accept stingy buyouts which left older workers (with no prospects of other employment) without enough healthcare time to make it to Medicare; most were unable to take them. Buyout takers turned out to be imminent retirees, younger workers with prospects elsewhere, and high-profile reporters with high-earning wives.

-- is awaiting layoffs that will take place under a seniority system in which all part-timers rank below all full-timers. Most part-timers turn out to be married women working three days a week, many for decades. Younger full-time staffers, including all Web staffers, have more seniority than any of them.

Unions aren't monolithic, and they aren't the problem. Anything is negotiable.

This paper is making money, although the bigger paper which bought it (and offered those badly-thought-out buyouts) has forced its bad policies and the cost of its bad decisions on it till it stripped it.

So far, no managers have been downsized.

5:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous.., yes, you're oh so right. I challenge you to produce three newsrooms with "larded, contented and unchallenged staff" ... actually, only two will do. I'm sure you're in one of them, filing a story a week or writing two headlines on a shift. You have got be on drugs if you believe the idiotic rant you put here. In fact, it's mindsets like yours that have led to the issues we're facing -- people in management and non management alike who can't see past their egos. To be sure, that isn't everyone. I work in a well-respected non-union newsroom with people who bust their backs every day -- despite idiots like you.

5:58 AM  
Blogger test said...

A lot of newspapers are in trouble not because they are losing money (they are not), but, during consolidation in the 80s and 90s, they ended up creating a lot of debt. Essentially, the new owners put the newspapers into debt in order to make the purchase.

I am not absolutely certain, but I am pretty sure that in a bankruptcy, those debts would be the first thing that would have to be paid, so Chapter 11 would not resolve the issue.

10:12 AM  

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