‘It will take unions to save newspapers’
By Andy Zipser
The Newsosaur, in a lengthy posting Monday, exhibited a poverty of imagination that cries out for charitable intervention.
Commenting on the refusal by Sun-Times Media workers to roll over and play dead, the Newsosaur laid out a stark choice: the unions can agree to sweeping wage and other contract concessions demanded by a prospective buyer of their bankrupt employer, essentially disemboweling themselves. Or they can stubbornly cling to outmoded concepts, like a living wage, decent benefits and a sense of workplace dignity -- and see the whole enterprise go down the toilet. "Either way, the unions lose," the Newsosaur concluded, before raising the logical question: given the above, have newspaper unions become irrelevant?
But as any poll-taker knows, how you pose a question is critically important in determining what answer you get. Black-and-white choices will elicit black-and-white answers. It's to the credit of power-brokers like Chicago's Jim Tyree that the choice for Sun-Times workers has been framed in such absolute terms, since it suits his purpose, but the rest of us should be smart enough to resist being stampeded into an intellectual dead-end.
Tyree is merely the latest in a parade of opportunists (can you say Sam Zell?) who see a chance to leach profit out of a failing enterprise by further starving its human capital. In this world view, the men and women who actually create the wealth that Tyree wants to claim are liabilities rather than assets, disposable commodities rather than stakeholders who may have a thought or two about how to turn things around.
Tyree is hardly alone in his contempt for working people, but there are alternatives. One particularly worth noting is the experiment now under way in Portland, ME, where a group of private investors recently bought the Press-Herald and three other media properties from the Blethen family, better known for its majority ownership of the Seattle Times. As in Chicago, the papers were a distressed sale, with the Blethens darkly warning that they'd have to pull the plug if a buyer couldn't be found. And, as in Chicago, the Blethens attempted to cram a wish-list of concessions down the unions' throats, asserting that without such changes no buyer would step forward.
In fact, a buyer did emerge – the only prospective bidder that approached the employees and their unions as stakeholders, not as sticks of furniture. The discussions that ensued lasted far longer than anyone anticipated, but the result was a series of quid pro quos: the employees gave up 10% of their wages and agreed to a two-year wage freeze, a two-year suspension of 401(k) contributions and a pension freeze. The buyers gave up a 15% equity stake to the unions, as well as three seats on a nine-member board of directors. Joint labor-management committees meet regularly to discuss changes and improvements.
It's much too soon to tell whether the Portland experiment will work in the long-run, but it's worth noting that in the short-run its employees are energized and optimistic. They share a belief that they're finally part of a joint enterprise, not a resented drain on the corporate coffers. And if the future holds a place for newspapers – if, that is, they're not all doomed to go the way of quill pens and palimpsests – it's a fair bet that the survivors will be those most successful at enlisting the active support of everyone on the payroll.
Will the Portland model work elsewhere? Maybe. Or maybe other models will evolve, each most appropriate to its locale and workforce and economic situation. The point is that such evolution won't occur in a vacuum. It takes organization and resources and at least a little institutional heft to get a publisher's attention, to convince would-be buyers that here's someone with whom it's worthwhile talking, to assure everyone at the table that deals can be struck and promises kept.
In other words, it takes a union.
(It's worth noting, for example, that it was the Portland Guild that approached Richard Connor and his partners when they were first thinking about the purchase – and as Connor subsequently acknowledged, without such overtures the deal would not have happened.)
Are strikes passe, as the Newsosaur suggests? Perhaps, but it sells unions short to imagine that's all they know how to do, so maybe it's the question that's irrelevant, not the union. And just as not all unions are run by thugs, not all publishers and newspaper owners – actual or aspiring – are corporate plunderers. A relevant union, therefore, is the one that offers a steel hand in a velvet glove: ready to slap down the arrogance of a Jim Tyree while remaining equally ready to shake the hand of a prospective partner.
The Newspaper Guild has its hand extended.