Monday, September 21, 2009

Are newspaper unions becoming irrelevant?

Union members at the Sun-Times Media Group never have been more powerful than they are today, but the power they wield is a weapon of mass self-destruction.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Newspapers are becoming irrelevant, once you have thrown away your objectivity, you have nothing worth buying anymore.

A lesson Obama is now learning.

5:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Irrelevant is, perhaps, the wrong word. Unions ARE relevant and will be as long as there is a (perceived or otherwise) misuse of power by management.

The question is whether unions have in fact become powerless. That's an easy answer, they have, as you correctly point out.

The more frightening question is whether this is a good thing. Ultimately it's not. Yes, unions have won some silly, if not self destructive, concessions in the past but ask anyone who works in a cubicle versus an office or who's ever tangled with a blatantly pro-management HR department if the unions are still needed and you'll get a clear answer.

The groundwork being laid now will be with this industry for a very long time, well beyond the disruptive changes we are going through now. It would be a shame for the unions to not survive.

7:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm. "Not anti-union ... but pro-worker." Scarily close to "Not anti-(ethnic group) ... but pro-white."

Of course, let's blame the unions. Let's not look at the people actually in charge of running these companies and their sometimes bloated corporate infrastructures, which haven't suffered similar, or even proportionate, cuts the last time I checked.

7:29 AM  
Blogger m.o.kane said...

Even though wage bargaining is off the table for government employees' unions, they remain popular as a brake against the exercise of arbitrary bureaucratic power. Perhaps this is the role of newspaper employees' unions going forward: something akin to an in-house dispute resolution system.

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Andy Zipser, The Newspaper Guild said...


You unfortunately stack the deck by formulating the choice for unions as one of acceding to management demands or of a kamikaze nose-dive. The problem as we see it -- not just at newspapers but across American industry -- is that the so-called smart people in the room who got us into this mess are determined to get us out of it by changing our behavior, not theirs. And the change they're seeking is to push us back 40 years or more through wage cuts, speed-ups and a whacking away at benefits.

There is a third way, which is to recognize that we're all in this together--and for management to start talking to unions and other workers' representatives as common-interest parties. We're not the enemy, although it's easy to demonize us that way by those who want to avoid taking responsibility for the mistakes they've made and the lives they've wasted.

One example of this third way, as you undoubtedly know, is being explored in Portland, Maine. It may work, it may not, but it's got to be better than the stark choices you laid out, which almost certainly point the way to complete destruction for all concerned. Other partnerships, we hope, will be developed elsewhere, each unique to local circumstances, each a laboratory for exploring currently untried options.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grow a pair, Alan.
Capitulation is the last thing unions should be doing at this point. Unless you think it is a great idea that we all work for a dollar a day. I find it interesting that even while newspapers are in supposedly poor financial shape, there are still people out there who want to take a shot at owning one, the "take it or leave it" creep in Chicago notwithstanding. I applaud the unions out there for telling him to shove it. Alan, there was never an era when unions had it easy, or did not face very hard questions. Alan, your parents hung in there and it is essential we do the same. Management will always try to screw people over. It is in their DNA. They are in this for one reason: To enrich themselves. And they have done for for years at the expense of their employees. Workers have got to stop cowering in fear and stand up for themselves!

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't give up hope yet. We are in an era where the employer holds all the power right now, which is all the more reason we need unions to protect us. Are they less powerful now? Certainly.

But they still do protect us. At one paper, management tried to force what they wanted down our throats, with a horrible alternative if we voted it down. We did vote it down and management came back to the table with a reasonable alternative we all agreed upon. That is a success and an example of why we need unions.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree with the Newsosaur.
The best time to be in a union is during the bad times.
This year, The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News Guild Local 22 members found that their union contract:
* gave them a 30-day notice of layoffs, which had to be done by seniority. that prevented pick-and-choose layoffs, immediate layffs and gave members facing the ax a cushion of time and money that non-union workers did not have.
* precluded gannett from trying that "fire everybody and force them all to reapply for their jobs" strategy it employed elsewhere. you can't do that under the contract.
* protected workers from furlough. managers had to take the furlough. reporters didn't.
* prevented the company from arbitrarily changing health coverage, vacation time etc.
* gave the company no power over our pension. unlike many others, our pension is healthy and is run jointly by the union and the company.

No, a union contract cannot prevent bad things from happening to your newspaper. it can't prevent layoffs or even closing. I'm sure in Aug. 2010 when our contract expires the company will make more demands.
But what a union contract can do is maintain dignity of its members. it can force the company to treat workers in a humane and orderly fashion, which is important in the worst of times.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kudos newsosaur for having the courage to speak simple truth and pose a question that we've all been thinking.

It all comes down leverage. When an industry is contracting, the unions have no leverage.

This can make you mad. This can make you want to scream and kick and yell. But it doesn't give you more leverage.

I think unions have lost their power -- and if I'm going to pay money for a union, I want that organization to give me something for my money that I could not get on my own. Now that the unions have lost their leverage because of outside market forces, there is no point in paying union dues.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Cute Boy Chicago said...

What's interesting here is that the newspaper is being forced to change with the times, but the Union is resisting to change as well. If they don't change, your word irrelevent will become the destiny of the union. When there are no workers to protect, there is no need for a union.

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...


You forget that there really is (D) None of the above.

This is a valid option that you ignored in the choices you articulated here.

Nothing is every so clearly black and white. You really cannot ignore those who created the choice for the union at STMG?

You are framing the conversation falsely in their terms rather than a mutual space of understanding and shared reality. Which I would argue does nothing to help, but only piles on more trouble.

What seems most relevant to the conversation is this bit, which I rarely see discussed in the commentary around all the articles lately.

"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."

From what I gather, the unions' current deals were built to share in the extraordinary profits of the firms of an older era. They earned those then.

Now, as a firm enters Ch. 11 to reorganize, all of the union contracts need to reorganize with it to emerge on the other side stronger and healthier.

Maybe somewhere we will see a union decide to own the company and BE THE MANAGEMENT, ending the bi-polar tendencies.

Now that the era has moved to one of slimmer and more nimble and changing media firms, the unions need to stay relevant by responding accordingly too.

Media firms going forward are going to a be less of an institutional model and more of a networked, grass-roots and flexible one.

How can we be successful if managers are left to their own devices to solve the new business problems?

Don't the unions have to be partners in creating solutions to the financial model problems?

Based on the brief comments of Andy Zipser here, sounds like he recognizes there is a 3rd way too.

Why is that so hard for both sides to start with the collaboration model?

They are called Bargaining Units for a reason, right? How could anybody not expect them to react strongly when told there is no bargaining to be had!

1:32 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I was a puppy in my first job out of college at Arthur Andersen in Houston. No, I did not work on the Enron account, but I was transferred to Eastern Airlines in Miami and got my first taste of unions.

I worked with the Treasurer who was responsible to renegotiate all the debt with Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and others and travelled extensively to cut deals. I worked a lot of OT and chatted with the nightshift guy who emptied my garbage. He was younger than me and never finished high school. Nice guy, he got double time for working evenings and he started another business on the side because he had so much free time. If he missed his Frisbee break, he got triple time.

Not only did he make more than I did with my college degree and three years experience, but we figured out he made more than the treasurer on an hourly basis. Decades later, Alan’s column surfaced that memory.

Agreed, there was a lot of stuff going on with Eastern’s demise: competition from new ‘no frills’ shuttles like Peoples Express, deregulation, and Frank Lorenzo, named one of Time Magazine's 10 "worst bosses of the century" was known as a ruthless corporate raider and union buster. Like newspapers, Eastern had a very rich history and even had a theme ride at Disney, If You Had Wings in Tomorrowland. Eastern filed for bankruptcy protection on March 9, 1989 and stopped flying on midnight Saturday, January 19, 1991.

Parable or analogy?

1:45 PM  
Blogger Solitude said...

"Are livery stable unions becoming irrelevant?"

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take just a moment to reflect that blood has been shed so that we can enjoy fair treatment and wages. Don't take this for granted!

Weekends and the eight hour work day, overtime, vacation benefits
sick time and Workers Comp. You guess it...Organized Labor!

OSHA and Child Labor laws and so much more!

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unions simply codify the ossification that is the death of any organization. Non-union lifers are nearly as bad, except you can fire them without an act of Congress.

Is it any surprise that the print media organizations closest to death are all unionized. The non-union shops aren't fairing particularly well, but the union shops lack the agility to quick change how employees do work. Unions promote inefficiency and bloat.

A few specific examples from my knowledgebase:
* A major metro newspaper had two printing plants. Union rules mandated press staffing levels far in excess of what was needed. A pressman would put in for an OT shift at one plant while he was working a straight shift at the second plant. His buddies would cover for him (i.e., run short), and the pressman would get the OT.
* At other metro paper, pressmen would force web breaks to throw their press crew into OT. When that happened, a train whistle sounded over the pressroom intercom system signaling that "the money train" had arrived.
* The Guild at a national newspaper fought management attempts to increase output, calling it "speed up" as if the rising tide of productivity throughout other US industries had no place in newspapers.
* Sales reps at one major newspaper were hourly employees not on commission who got OT for making out-of-town sales calls.
* By decree of contract, every newspaper bundle that left the mailroom of a particular Northeast newspaper had to be handled by a Teamster. So when the newspaper automated its packaging facility, there was a Teamster on each stacker line whose job it was to simply touch the bundle as it went down the line.
* Union rules at one magazine created a five hour shift minimum and minimum. So if you called someone at home to make a fix to a story, the writer or subeditor had to be paid for five hours.

The list goes on and on. Unions at one time served a purpose in protecting workers against tyrannical managers and horrific abuses. This is still the case in some industries, but definitely not publishing. Unions love sharing in the spoils of good times, but go kicking and screaming when asked to give back during bad times. Show me an emerging industry that has been improved by the presence of unions (high tech, pharma, nope). I'm a blue dog Democrat on nearly every point except organized labor. They should be treated like any other supplier -- if you can't compete on price and quality, companies should be able to fire unions en masse and replace them with better suppliers of labor.

Good riddance!

6:31 PM  
Blogger William A Thompson said...

I am VP of a union (not a newspaper union) and on a regular basis have to deal with the predations of management--which our contract protects us from. I have worked in a non union environment and worked in a union one and would never want to go back to non union. Unions,as one of the other writers said, give us dignity--and good salaries--and decent benefits. They are worth fighting for.

6:37 PM  
Anonymous Jeang287 said...

As Mr. Thompson said, I, too, have worked union and non-union, at different newspapers. I would never willingly work non-union again.
-- Jeang287

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone that thinks being without a union is a good thing should rent the documentary "Harlan County, USA".

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, newspaper unions are one of the many things that are irrelevant about newspapers, at least for editorial people. They get good discounts on healthcare coverage, but that's about it.

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's easy to forget that it's not just newspaper guild members who have benefitted from being organized, but also non-union employees at the same newspapers or at other newspapers nationwide.
If the Newspaper Guild packed it in, as Alan suggests, everyone in the industry would see their salaries, benefits and rights as workers decimated.
In hard economic times - like the great Depression -unions helped save working men and women from the degradations of management.

Today is no different than then. Unions do need to change with the times, but as we suffer from the worst excesses of capitalism we especially need those who fill fight for those who earn a living.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


5:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The way unions got their power wasn't just the strike.Sabotage. Blow up a few trucks. Trash honor boxes.
I'm serious. Management chips away at us behind a thousand veils of law and we are afraid to do what we did in, say, 1905.
If this is a fight, let's fight!

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unions have done many good things and helped give us decent hours and decent wages. But in the newspaper business, from what I've seen, they've self-destructed.

At the mid-size papers where I have worked, the unions resisted training, resisted job modifications, resisted change at every opportunity.

The result? To get the results the newspapers needed, they started to hire non-union jobs in the newsrooms. The unions remained in the back shops and press operations. And slowly they retired, not to be replaced. Sometimes, when the back shops were closed, these employees were moved into the newsroom and given light duty. They were the most unproductive members, because they had never been trained beyond their old duties. And they weren't going to be trained, because their contract didn't call for it. And their old knowledge became irrelevent. Who resisted change among their employees? The unions themselves. They were protecting the old jobs. That strategy is now backfiring.

The 30-day layoff notice is a very good thing. The not being able to pick-and-choose? How does that make sense? Why shouldn't a paper be able to lay off the most unproductive members? If those employees can't be productive given their long experience, they must have been wasting their time ... or been members of a bad union that never watched out for them, never made sure their skills were updated and kept current.

At this point in time, at many papers, union employees are already a small concern. There are too few left.

Now I realize at big papers this may not be the case. But their time to face the music has come. They should have gotten more training and been more productive.

Instead of placing all the blame on newspaper management, how about blaming the unions themselves???

10:13 AM  
Anonymous RPM said...

I once worked with a newspaper executive who said, "If you get a union, you deserved a union." Twenty years later, people at our two-paper company share profits, financials, ups, downs, pain, joy and everything else. What a concept, treating people decently and expecting each one to pull a load! We have neither robber baron owners nor feather-bedding stiffs on staff. Unions have never been an issue. They're not good, not bad and not here.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm days late to the discussion, but it's a good one.

1. Janet, interesting you mention Eastern Airlines. The story of Eastern for years has been used to illustrate how company/union war can end up killing the source of income for both.

2. As a newspaper guild member for nearly 25 years, I've reached this conclusion: The quality of union leadership will be no greater than the quality of management (which, after all, is responsible for training and organizational culture). Union leadership is often poor quality because it is career/job suicide to volunteer for union leadership.

3. If newspaper unions are ill-equipped to respond to devastating changes in the industry (much like auto unions), they reflect the companies that are ill equipped to respond to devastating change in the indurty.

4. Wall Street demands for unreasonable profits continue to fuel irrational decisions to gut this industry and others. Who will argue for a sustainable future for American firms and workers?

5. Defending the contract is the prime directive of the guild. It's time to change the focus to serving members. That will require options ranging from soft landings for old dogs and fed ups ready to call it quits, to securing 0training and opportunity for those who will forge the future, to representation and health insurance for the swelling ranks of freelancers. And how about planting union seeds in overseas companies taking the work?

6. Find out as clearly as possible why the Chicago buyer is demanding each concession. Brainstorm on how the goals can be met without draconian givebacks. Prove that the people who do the work know how to do it best. If he doesn't buy that, he was going to wreck what's left of the company anyway.

4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Find out as clearly as possible why the Chicago buyer is demanding each concession. Brainstorm on how the goals can be met without draconian givebacks. Prove that the people who do the work know how to do it best. If he doesn't buy that, he was going to wreck what's left of the company anyway.

This is absurd. Tyree and his investors have a business plan that contains financial projections. These projections assume the reduction of operating expenses in order to turn the business around.

The company lost (IIRC) $60 million at the operating line for the first six months of the year, with sales down 30% Y-O-Y. This is a business that's gone into cardiac arrest. It doesn't need to lose 25 pounds; it needs a defibrillator and five-way bypass.

The buyer has ALL the leverage. If the projections call for them to take 50 percent out of the newsroom budget, it will happen or they will pull the plug.

--Fresh Air

10:31 PM  
Anonymous Mike Phillips said...

In my youth, I served on the union side of the negotiating table. I thought my comrades were nuts to spend so much energy on silly work rules like forbidding reports to make photographs or editors to report stories.

I was on the management side of the table most of my career, and I often pitied my employees for the lame representation they got. I was no master negotiator -- but it was far too easy for me to have my way. Things got worse for reporters after the Guild merged into the CWA. I sometimes found myself dealing with recycled phone company people who thought journalists were a bunch of right-brained hippies.

Of course, my corporate masters had some illogical attitudes, too, like trying to squeeze union reporters out of a new thing called the Internet and failing to see the benefit to management of letting them into the ESOP and making them part-owners of the company.

But unions were far down on my list of management worries. Even 20 or 30 years ago they weren't especially relevent, and by the time I retired three years ago, they meant nothing.

Unless, of course, you wanted a few rousing choruses of "Joe Hill."

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This same scenario was experienced recently by the unions at The Boston Globe, owned by The New York Times.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

For unions to surrender their cause, to acquiesce to your callous perception that they've become irrelevant, would essentially be surrendering the future prosperity of America's middle class, if there is to be any. Unions created the middle class by reclaiming workers' souls from the company stores. And you would have us sell them back? Shame on you! With a union background like yours, you of all people should know what a grave mistake it would be for unions to cave in to corporate greed. It's become this country's worst enemy. Have you no conscience? Or is it just too satisfying to be sitting at the table of corporate greed! Eating heartily and filling your stomach at the expense of your mind...
John Tucker

9:30 PM  

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