Labor Relations for a New Economy

By: Grethen A. Peck

Labor Relations for a New Economy

Never before has the fundamental necessity and effectiveness of newspapers been so greatly challenged — by the economy, an evolving readership base, and technology. Though optimists would qualify this as a time for opportunity and suggest that “united we stand, divided we fall,” recent decades have proven rather contentious, with no shortage of infighting between publishers and the professionals they employ.

It begs the questions: Has anti-union sentiment and a political landscape rife with hyperbole exacerbated negotiations in our industry? What profound impact have specific cases of publisher-labor conversations had on the industry as a whole?

And, most importantly, how can the industry move forward and overcome its challenges while fostering solidarity and nurturing the reverence employees have for the business of publishing, and publishers have for the craftsmen and women who make newspapers?

A Contentious Culture
Anti-union sentiment is pervasive across the nation today. The recent Wisconsin protests — inspired by legislation that would essentially take away the collective bargaining rights of public employees — sparked great debates at dinner tables and conference tables about an economic and political climate that renders unions vulnerable.

“I think the culture right now is certainly anti-union,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America (TNG/CWA) in Washington, D.C.

It’s easy to understand how the climate has become so contentious. An economy on life support forces business owners to hunker down in foxholes, preparing to hold the bottom line. The upcoming presidential election cycle adds fuel to the fire, with the left and the right leveraging the animosity in the interest of party distinction. Even presidential candidate Michele Bachmann waxed poetic about the abolition of the minimum wage — which she says is a measure to get Americans back to work, but it leaves union members and non-union workers alike preparing to battle back.

Whether the contentious climate in other industries and in the public sector has seeped into publishing, or whether the newspaper industry has been waging its own tug of war between newspaper owners and labor — separate and apart from party politics — may not be as important to discern as trying to figure out how to temper it.

“There has been an ongoing de-unionization of the newspaper industry, like so many other industries,” said Nancy Cleeland, director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington, D.C.

Naturally, the more contentious publisher-union negotiations garner the most media attention, such as the recent case between the Times Union in Albany, N.Y. — accused of the improper layoffs of 11 workers in 2009 — and  the Albany Guild.

The matter worked its way through the courts and came before the NLRB, which upheld a federal judge’s ruling that the publisher’s actions were illegal. The publisher was ordered to rehire workers, pay them for lost wages — estimated by the union at more than $500,000 — reimburse them for lost benefits, plus pay compounded interest.

“Our remedies are pretty limited,” said NLRB’s Cleeland. “We can only restore the status quo. We can’t assess penalties or fines or anything like that. Some people say the NLRB’s remedies are very weak, and this is one way to make them a little bit stronger — to compound the interest.”

Not all recently settled negotiations have been so favorable for the union employees.

In July 2011, the Toledo Newspaper Guild in Ohio greenlighted a new three-year contract with the Toledo Blade. The guild reported that it struck the deal with the publisher after coming to the conclusion that it would be the best possible offer its members would likely see. The agreement comprised limited outsourcing of jobs; compensation plans that incrementally decreased by 3 percent each year (through 2013), with a “snapback provision” for 2014 (until the contract expires in May 2014); and other facets related to vacation and sick leave, grievance procedures, and even rules governing employees’ Internet and social media usage.

In California, the Santa Barbara News-Press case has grown in notoriety beyond publishing circles. The long, bitter fight between owner Wendy McCaw’s Ampersand Publishing and the employees has even become fodder for a documentary film, “Citizen McCaw.”

The good news for the industry is that not all publisher-union negotiations have been so dramatic.

The more than two-year dispute has been resolved between Thomson Reuters and its employees represented by the Newspaper Guild of New York. The agreement represents true compromise between publisher and labor — reportedly, restoration of retirement account matching, as well as an increase in cost of health care for which the employees are responsible — but with a contract that limits the company’s ability to further raise health care rates during the duration of the agreement.

“[There are] publishers that took the ‘cut, cut, cut’ approach, leaving some pretty cynical people out there, sadly. And some of those places are in trouble. We don’t know yet whether that was the right path, or whether they should have been reinvesting.   It’s hard, because newspapers were so profitable … and publishers are expected to maintain those profits. It’s just not a given in the current climate,” TNG/CWA’s Lunzer said.

Keeping the Faith
It’s the NLRB’s role to determine whether the parties demonstrated “good faith” or whether they have truly reached an impasse. The governing organization states on its website, “If after sufficient good faith efforts, no agreement can be reached, the employer may declare impasse, and then implement the last offer presented to the union. However, the union may disagree that true impasse has been reached and file a charge of an unfair labor practice for failure to bargain in good faith. The NLRB will determine whether true impasse was reached based on the history of the negotiations and the understanding of both parties.”

“[Good faith] is an issue that’s sometimes litigated,” said NLRB’s Cleeland. “What is good faith? What is bargaining to impasse? It can be a subjective call. For instance, that was a charge that was filed with us by the NFL owners. They charged that the players were not negotiating in good faith, and so we had to initiate an investigation that took a long time, because it’s such a complicated issue.

“It requires getting affidavits from both sides and asking questions, such as: How many times did you meet? Were you showing any movement whatsoever? … And once you bargain to impasse, then the employer can impose their last offer. It is one of the tougher charges we have to investigate. Can you prove that someone had an open mind?” Cleeland asked.

Lunzer is a pragmatic leader. He’s quick to admit that not all demands from labor have been wisely made. Neither “team” in this important game has an error-free stat report.

“Whenever we get into contract bargaining, we always say, ‘Is this a legitimate demand, or is it ideologically driven?’ I would say that we run into, maybe, 25-percent ideologues … that are just sort of trying to get stuff to get stuff, whether they need it or not,” Lunzer said. “But the vast majority of people still are pretty sensible and are trying to make the business work.”

Lunzer also said that transparency is an important tenet to reasonable negotiations. Labor must be prepared to demonstrate the necessity of a demand. Conversely, publishers should be prepared to show why a demand cannot be met.

“I think any time a business can legitimately show shared sacrifice, that goes a long way in our industry,” Lunzer said. “Because people are willing to put up with a lot, especially if they believe that they can keep the product alive, keep publishing.”

Lunzer reported that publishers will, under the protection of non-disclosure agreements, share more intimate details of their fiscal health.

“And based on that, if we can let our members know that we have gone through a process and really reviewed the situation, and it’s legitimate, that goes a long way to sort of setting the tone,” he said. “If people are honest with each other, and they’re respectful, I think a lot can be derived from the conversation.”

The Last Stand?
“Less than 7 percent of the private-sector workforce is in unions now,” NLRB’s Cleeland said. “So, in some ways, many people are looking at this as the last stand for labor.”

Though it may be politically popular these days to pit business owners against labor, Nelson Lichtenstein, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said, “I do not think that the unions have caused the problems of newspapers, at all.”

Lichtenstein said he believes the health, longevity, and strength of publishing unions will largely depend on their ability to transfer their print clout to electronic media. To illustrate the role technology plays in the evolution of organized labor, he looks at the Teamsters’ past, when horses and buggies gave way to automobiles and trucks. And more recently, technology has played a vital role in both the motion-picture and telecom industries.

“For example, the CWA, the union, has been very active in the past two decades, pushing for agreements with all of the big telephone companies that will enable the union to organize in the wireless world, not just for [labor devoted to] landlines,” Lichtenstein said.

This past spring, journalists at San Francisco-based news website The Bay Citizen voted to affiliate with the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents approximately 2,000 news workers throughout California and Hawaii. The guild reported that this case represents the first publishing organization of its kind — a nonprofit, Web-based startup — to organize in this way.

And technology lies at the heart of the Huffington Post boycott, which sprang up when the site’s creators banked $315 million after the successful Web-based entity was scooped up by AOL. It left many of the site’s unpaid contributors feeling as though they’d been taken advantage of, jilted.

According to Lunzer, workers are often motivated to unionize not because they have specific grievances; rather, because they “want to have a voice.” And as a union leader, he advises workers against organizing merely because they’re “angry at the boss.” They should be motivated, somewhat, by altruism, he said.

“[They want to help] decide what the future of the product looks like, what the future of journalism looks like,” he said. “Guild members … have always cared passionately about their products.”

In a message to The Newspaper Guild, published on the union’s website, Lunzer said, “We fundamentally believe the media operations that work with their employees will be the strongest.   We are pursuing joint committees. Working with locals, we’ll be appealing to owners to start talking about ways to solve common problems and improve the product.”

The July 7, 2011 edition of The Economist included an exploration of recent news business models titled “Reinventing the Newspaper.” The author poignantly reminded readers just how much is at stake if the newspaper industry continues to fracture: “It may be a business, but it also plays an important part in democracy.”

Editor’s Note: In preparation for this article, Editor & Publisher reached out to several newspaper publishers for their perspective; all declined to comment.  

For more than 15 years, Gretchen A. Peck has written about the business of publishing, printing, and graphic communications. She formerly served as editor-in-chief and editorial director for Book Business and Publishing Executive magazines.

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Published: September 15, 2011

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