Are newspaper unions becoming irrelevant?
The unions can continue voting – as they did last week – against the sweeping wage and other contract concessions being demanded by the potential purchaser of their bankrupt company, thereby almost certainly condemning the business to liquidation if a sale is not arranged in a matter of weeks.
Or, in the interests of saving the flagship Chicago Sun-Times, its 58 sister papers and as many jobs as possible, the workers can agree to double-digit pay cuts, the elimination of seniority rights and a host of other contract protections they have long held dear.
Either way, the unions lose.
If they reject the concessions and the company folds, the 1,900 employees at the company likely would lose their jobs, including the 630 represented by unions.
If the unions agree to the concessions demanded by potential buyer James C. Tyree, some people probably will lose their jobs, anyway. Those left will see skinnier paychecks and weaker benefits, while laboring with fewer protections and more uncertainty than workers at the troubled company have ever known.
If the concessions demanded by Tyree are as non-negotiable as he says they are, then an eventual agreement by the unions to his terms will mean that a great many of the protections historically enjoyed by their members would be summarily forfeited. Though the resulting bargain may be the best anyone can hope for in these dire times for newspapers, a capitulation by the union would render it largely impotent in future transactions with management.
The situation shaping up in Chicago is hardly unique. Cave-or-else demands from management have been swallowed this year by unions representing workers from the Boston Globe to the San Francisco Chronicle and countless papers in between.
The problem of shrinking union clout is not exclusive to newspapers. It has become increasingly common among unions representing workers in a host of once prosperous, but now contracting, industries.
As but one example, the membership of the United Automobile Workers has shrunk to 431,000 today from 1.5 million in 1979. The UAW’s remaining members (and retirees) have been forced to accept any number of major contract concessions. Those still on the line have learned to live with the gut-gnawing uncertainty of how long, and under that circumstances, they will retain their positions.
Only 12.4% of American workers belonged to unions at the end of 2008, as compared with 20.1% in 1983 when such data first were compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Interestingly, the BLS reports that 36.8% of government employees belong to unions but only 7.6% of workers in private industry are represented by unions.
Just as journalists, ad reps, publishers and other people in the newspaper industry need to think about doing their jobs in new and vastly different ways, so do unions. The problem is that a clear future role for unions is not evident, because they have lost the leverage that once gave them their power.
The power of a union, of course, is its ability to withdraw the services of its members in an action otherwise known as a strike. Because few among us believe a newspaper these days could survive a strike, this option is off the table.
Given that both unions and management know this, the question of the day is this: Are newspaper unions becoming irrelevant?
Before you answer, some perspective:
Unions came to power during the Industrial Age, when sheer manpower was necessary to dig coal, smelt steel, build cars and, yes, set type one letter at a time. Without workers, companies couldn’t produce. Without product, companies couldn’t sell. Without sales, companies could not make a profit.
Unions had their greatest influence in industries where competing companies made the same product. If union workers went on strike at Ford, then General Motors and Chrysler gained a great opportunity to sell more cars and make more money. Some of the extra profits could be reinvested in capturing future market share from Ford. Not wanting to be crippled by strikes, all the auto markers for the mos part worked pretty hard to keep peace with their unions – and that’s how we got the sumptuous union contracts that now threaten to topple the un-competitive American auto industry.
With labor comparatively scarce and the economy expanding vigorously in the era following World War II, there generally were enough sales and profits in most industrial concerns to be shared comfortably between companies and their workers. Unions in a broad array of industries took advantage of the burgeoning prosperity to broaden and strengthen their membership, achieving landmark gains in pay, benefits and job rights.
But all that has changed now, especially for newspapers.
Newspapers need much less manpower to publish today than they did in the past. If a publisher going to an all-digital operation weren’t fussed about producing original content, a reasonably useful, popular and potentially profitable website could be run with almost no employees.
With a small and shrinking number of exceptions, few newspapers have direct competition from other newspapers. But the competition from the alternate media is so ferocious that a newspaper shut by a strike today almost certainly would never open again. The news and advertising vacuum would be filled rapidly by a host of online media, as well as perhaps a few enterprising competitors who cheaply produced print products at a local job shop. So, the threat of a strike – the weapon that historically gave unions their strength – is simply out of the question.
Last but not least, the newspaper industry is tens of billions of dollars smaller than it used to be, leaving less money than ever for management to split with workers. Advertising is likely to be some $20 billion lower this year than it was as recently as 2005, when the industry sold a record $49.4 billion in ads. Newspapers today are struggling to pay their debts and break even, let alone book anything like the juicy profits they used to make.
Because there is nothing to suggest things suddenly are going to start going the other way for newspapers, the best unions can hope to do today is try to wheedle minimal, incremental changes in the pay cuts and givebacks their members are facing. In a situation like the one at the Sun-Times Group, where a potential buyer can walk away without suffering any material financial pain, the unions may not even have the power to wheedle.
Unions did great things for American workers, improving workplace standards for members and non-members alike. My father was a union man, my mother was a union woman and I was a proud and active member of the Chicago Newspaper Guild until I was promoted into an exempt position at the Sun-Times. I am not anti-union. But I am pro-worker.
So, I can’t help but wonder whether one way newspaper unions could help their members would be to admit the futility of their efforts and save them the cost of union dues.
Now that I have put this painful question on the table, the comment window is open. I am bracing for a good thrashing from my former brothers and sisters in the labor movement.
Nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong. But I frankly – and sadly – don’t see a more constructive approach for unions to take.