Wednesday, September 23, 2009

‘It will take unions to save newspapers’

A number of readers disagreed sharply with my suggestion that newspaper unions may be losing their relevance. One of them was Andy Zipser, the editor of The Guild Reporter, the official publication of The Newspaper Guild-CWA. Here’s what he had to say:

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.


Anonymous Tim Martell said...

Attaboy, Andy.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's bring Mother Jones and Joe Hill to the ramparts! Isn't Portland a monopoly operation? This guy's living in the halcyon days of Walter Reuther. It's over. Just ask the UAW.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is James Tyree all of a sudden the bad guy here? He's the one offering to save the newspaper. He should be hailed as a patriot.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why shouldn't the union members make some serious sacrifices? My friend who's in management at the Sun-Times no longer has severance and is facing an 8 percent paycut should this deal happen. That's on top of the furlough she took earlier this year.
I think she's nuts to stay there, but there's not a lot of good jobs out there right now.

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Staff members are not liabilities OR assets. They are expenses, whether you like it or not. Salaries usually go under "selling, general and administrative costs" on an income statement (Income = Revenue - Expenses). That is Accounting 101. Really. I really learned that in Accounting 101. In all seriousness, it disturbs me how little journalists understand about the basics of business -- even very high-level journalists. This contributes, I think, to the struggles in developing new business models, or reworking the old one so that it can function in a modern world.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The unions are ready to make sacrifices far greater than your management friend's. They already voted themselves a 15 percent pay cut last spring. Money isn't the issue; it's that the company wants to do away with the guild's seniority, severance and other worker protections.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Newspapers are cooked. Once the people found the weekly ads online, toast.

The newspapers threw their only worth on a crap pile of bias and Democrat support.

When your product has no value, you have no market ... Good riddance.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope the Sun-Times Guild holds its ground and doesn't give in to Tyree, and then finds an investor willing to partner with the Guild to resurrect the Sun-Times after liquidation. I think Mr. Mutter posed interesting questions. And Mr. Zipser has issued a thoughtful counterpoint.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you should have gone on to take Accounting 102. That's the one where there is no income and, ergo, no profit if there isn't a product to sell. The product is what the news gatheres and editors put together each day. If you don't value their worth, you won't have a quality product that is attractive to consumers. If you doubt me, look at newspapers is cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee where the staff has been decimated, the news hole has been slashed and the content is less local than ever. You don't have to wonder why circulation is plummeting as well.

6:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the anonymous 3:43 p.m. post - I hope you like your Democracy in the "good riddance" department too. Hate newspaper owners all you like - heck, hate newspapers all you want - but without the type of journalism those has-been pieces of bird-cage liner produced, kiss democracy good-bye too. I haven't seen too many Pulitzer prizes won by internet sites, nor politicians and big business crooks rooted out by anonymous mass-audience bloggers (does such a creature exist?).

I just love all of the newspaper haters. Change is good, and inevitable, but don't say good riddance to the products many good journalists produced over time.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unions exist for one reason only: to secure for their members, through the cartelization of labor, above-market wages and benefits.

All the aromatic language used in this piece does not change this simple fact. A business cannot pay above-market wages indefinitely or it will be at a competitive disadvantage. The Guild actually protects relatively high-paying jobs of senior staffers, while preventing the hiring of inexperienced recent graduates by making the entry-level wage prohibitive.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Retired in Cali said...

Says Anonymous 5:28 p.m.: "I hope the Sun-Times Guild holds its ground and doesn't give in to Tyree, and then finds an investor willing to partner with the Guild to resurrect the Sun-Times after liquidation."

What alternate universe are you living in? There are NO investors willing to sink millions into old-line media in the Chicago market. Especially when The Sun-Times competitors have non-union newsrooms. If the Sun-Times union could have found a partner, they would have been trumpeting it. The union folks in Chicago should ask their fellow brethren in Seattle, Denver, Boston and Minneapolis how it's worked out for them. These unionists should be thanking James Tyree for being a risktaker and willing to take the chance to resurrect the Sun-Times. And, finally, does anyone outside of Guild members really believe "It will take unions to save newspapers"?

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a story about a few others who are investing in the S-T with Tyree. From Crain's Chicago Business blogger:

10:25 AM  
Anonymous RPM said...

"It takes a union." Yes, a union of management and labor, a union of minds, a union of interests.
Amazing as this may seem, this can be accomplished without labor unions.
Enlightened, open book owner/managers realize their fortunes are tied to those of workers. It's not much more complicated than share and share alike. The right people -- particularly the owners -- have to be in place, but it can be done.
The last thing a fragile industry needs is a 1950s-style management or a confrontation-oriented labor union. Unions are in the union business. Without friction, secrecy, mistrust and suspicion, unions are out of business.
It's good business for owners and their long-term profitably to get into the 21st century and treat employees fairly and as partners. It's good for the workers not to have to pay a percentage of their earnings in union dues.
This post is not from an ivory tower. It's from a two-newspaper company where all of the above is business as usual.

11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Union bosses have been lining their pockets during this recession that has seen salary freezes, salary cuts and pension freezes. Not true? Look at what is happening in Boston:
"The Newspaper Guild has its hand extended," you say. Yes, but watch as the other hand picks the pockets of the rank and file.

3:10 PM  
Blogger an alliterative alias said...

It's good to see that the people who directly report on the news are finally getting a say. Management, workforce, and CONTENT are better when there is a shared sacrifice, not just corporate buy-outs leaving reporters in the dust.

Are unions till relevant in a post-newspaper world though? Or is the news business going to be so fragmented that there won't be critical mass of worker in one place so as to warrant the union?

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Newspaper unions have been good for workers, no doubt, but it's hard to argue that they've been good for employers overall. Running a union newspaper has never been a good way to get rich.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Retired in Cali ...

I guess I live in a universe where this is possible.

And one where this is possible:

I prefer not to live in a universe where James Tyree is hailed as a "savior" just because James Tyree says so. The deal he put together, in cahoots with Jeremy Halbreich, stinks. And no matter how many times they say it's the last, best chance, just because they say it's so doesn't make it so.

(Also, Tyree's offer is for the whole Sun-Times News Group. My suggestion is the Guild should look into handling the Sun-Times on its own. If you free yourself from thinking of the Sun-Times in traditional legacy newspaper terms, there may yet be a future for the title.)

7:05 PM  

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