June 23, 2003

Newspapers and Unions

"I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better."
- Sophie Tucker, vaudevillian.

With apologies to Sophie, who besides being the Last of the Red Hot Mamas was at one time also president of an actors' union, I've worked in a union shop and I've worked in a non-union shop. Non-union is better.

Neither environment is perfect, but few employer-employee relationships are. Some companies, or their managers, are so onerously abusive that their laborers require organized protection. And some employees are so profligately intent on not delivering a day's work for a day's pay that they deserve to be shown the door without contest. On the whole, though, productivity and creativity thrive best in an environment that is open, flexible and collaborative - qualities that are antithetical to the rigidity, hierarchy and task segregation stipulated in most contracts arrived at via collective bargaining, a reactive, defensive process in which mutual mistrust is a core belief.

At newspapers, where newsrooms are already stratified and task oriented by nature and boardrooms consider a 25 percent margin a good starting place for revenue growth, the addition of a union further calcifies already hardened positions.

The Baltimore Sun, where unionized newsroom and business employees are engaged in collective brinkmanship with the Tribune Company over a new contract, is a good example.

The dispute seems to be easily defined - and classically demarcated.

The Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents 600-plus Sun workers, wants guaranteed 3 percent annual raises for its members and preservation of seniority rules that define management's ability to transfer or layoff employees.

The Tribune Company, which also owns the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, eight other large newspapers and more than 25 TV stations, wants to "create(s) a performance-driven culture" that "tie(s) future salary increases for the most experienced reporters, photographers and advertising salespeople largely to their productivity and other barometers of performance."

Under the current contract, top-scale reporters now earn $1,093 a week, $56,836 a year, more than a similar reporter at the Washington Post and $6,000 a year more than the median income in Baltimore County.

Guild president M. William Salganik, a Sun health reporter, told the New York Times, "The Tribune proposals indicate that where they're starting from is the position that they have so many lazy and incompetent and unqualified workers that the way to deal with us is to deny us pay raises, deny us cost-of-living increases, transfer us to any other job or lay us off at random."

Yep. That's right. What company doesn't want to get rid of deadwood, especially a media company like the Tribune whose shareholders are accustomed to a fat bottom line? [See latest Tribune Company earnings.]

But, don't enterprising reporters, editors and photographers, those with initiative and passion for their work, deserve more money than their clock-punching co-workers?

Yep. They do. But "merit pay" is inherently anti-union, contrary to a union's base principal of negotiated egalitarianism.

I have been in unions and out of them. In my vanished youth, I worked in Rust Belt factories trying to organize workers. Later, I paid my Guild dues for years at a San Francisco newspaper. Later still, as a non-union member of senior management, I crossed picket lines when the Guild and Teamsters struck my paper, the most divisive and disillusioning experience of my newspaper career.

I left the newsroom for the unfettered frontier of the Internet, where, after more than a decade spent in a world so micro-managed by collectively bargained rules that people argued over who could write a caption or whether a copy editor should receive an extra $1.50 a shift for pushing a certain button, I was astounded by the rush of creativity collaborative effort could produce.

I am not anti-union, but I don't like rigidity and unionized newsrooms are beset by rules that both employees and managers employ for manipulation and self-protection.

The problem with unions and newspapers is that inherently creative people - writers, artists, photographers - are classified by task, paid equally whether they perform well or not and discouraged from experimenting with horizontal professional growth. Reporters need permission to edit. Editors need dispensation to write. Photographers are not word people. Reporters cannot take photographs or write captions.

Newspapers need more creativity, not less. Newsrooms need more individuality, not less. Newspaper readers deserve reporters' and editors' best efforts, nothing less. The Baltimore Sun staff should get a raise. And the paper's owners should decide who merits one and who doesn't.

UPDATE: Editor & Publisher reports today the tough economics for newspapers are creating labor talks that have degraded from "calculated chess matches to bitter war games." The story looks at negotiations at six papers, including the Sun. [ Read it ]

 New York Times Labor Standoff at Baltimore Sun Gets Serious

Posted by Tim Porter at June 23, 2003 08:40 AM

Well put....makes sense to me. Very well articulated.

Posted by: d. rabin on June 23, 2003 11:43 AM
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