By: Tony Case
RUMORS OF ORGANIZED labor’s demise are greatly exaggerated, strikers in Detroit are getting a bad rap and “bean counters” are killing the great American newspaper.
If you don’t want Linda Foley’s opinions, don’t ask for them.
In a wide-ranging interview last week, Foley, the outspoken new president of the Newspaper Guild and the first woman to head the 63-year-old organization, sounded off on an array of issues affecting the union, its members and the industry as a whole ? among them, technology’s sweeping impact on newspapers, the advancement of women in the field and the Guild’s historic merger with the Communications Workers of America.
But without question, the topic that most provoked Foley was what she called “the corporatization of journalism.”
The way she sees it, corporate ownership of newspapers and the resulting preoccupation with profits constitute the single biggest threat to the business and those who toil in it.
One hears much these days about “downsizing,” “reengineering” and “retrenchment.” To this union boss, these are just trendy ways of saying, “You’re fired.”
Foley, 40, noted that when she went to work as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader in the 1970s, the newspaper business was still, by and large, run by families.
But when the Hearsts, Binghams and Chandlers ceded power to Gannett, Tribune and Cap Cities, a new order was born that “changed not only the approach to labor, but the way people do their jobs,” she said. “And it made things worse.”
Foley’s complaint is a familiar one: When faraway parent companies gobble up hometown dailies, these newspapers risk losing the local focus that is their greatest strength.
“I don’t think that we can do our jobs effectively and deliver an effective product if there isn’t decision-making at the local level,” Foley said.
“If you look at newspapers ? the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, even the Wall Street Journal ? they have places in their names. That’s not by accident. A newspaper is tied to its community, and when those ties become more distant and decisions are based on profit and loss statements for a whole variety of properties, then I think that has a detrimental effect on the product we produce and the morale of the people who produce it.”
Foley maintains that labor is locked in a showdown with the newspaper titans, and the victor will ultimately decide whether the medium thrives or falters in the next century.
“The bean counters are in charge, and those who look only at the bottom line have to understand that people are part of the equation in this business,” she said. “You can’t treat people like beans. What are we selling? We’re selling people: the people who write the articles, the ad salespeople, the customer service people. It’s not that newspapers are so attractive, so sexy that people read them ? they read them because of the people who produce them.
“There’s going to be a point where publishers are going to have to realize they need [the Guild] and the people we represent. You have to provide good jobs and secure jobs or you’re not going to produce the kind of product people are going to want to buy in the community.”
Nowhere has the clash between the executive suite and the rank and file been more explicit than in Detroit, where two dailies have been engaged in a money-draining, often violent strike since last July.
Foley believes the Detroit standoff will go down as a landmark American labor struggle, comparable to the monumental Homestead steel workers’ strike of 1892.
And the history books, she contends, won’t be kind to management.
“For employers to take the kind of tactics they have in Detroit, to so totally disregard the dignity and respect for their long-term employees, to hire guards who actually beat up on strikers . . . I never would have thought two years ago that the largest newspaper companies would have engaged in that kind of bashing,” she said.
For their part, top executives of Gannett Co., publisher of the Detroit News, and Knight-Ridder Inc., which owns the Detroit Free Press, have served up some scathing criticism of the Newspaper Guild leadership.
Gary L. Watson, president of Gannett’s newspaper division, told analysts meeting in New York last December that the Detroit strike resulted because union leaders insisted on outmoded work rules that promoted feather-bedding.
P.Anthony Ridder, chairman and CEO of Knight-Ridder, boasted that the unions were losing their momentum.
Just last month, in a letter to the editor of this magazine, Detroit News editor and publisher Robert H. Giles wrote that the strike was “determining who is going to control our business, the unions or the companies.”
Giles went on the charge that press coverage of the Detroit situation focused on picket-line violence and vandalism without examining “what the issues are.”
According to the conventional wisdom, unions have lost much of their influence with the advent of the electronic age.
The fact is, as millions of American industrial jobs have vanished, the percentage of workers who belong to unions has plummeted.
Foley suggested that those who doubt the power unions wield would do well to examine Detroit.
“It’s pretty hard to say that the unions aren’t effective when they’ve forced these companies into a position that they’re losing $100 million,” she said. “They continue to suffer losses, but we’re still fighting in Detroit and aren’t over by any means.
“We haven’t lost $100 million and 30% of our subscribers, those companies have, and I think there’s a real question about whether Gannett and Knight-Ridder can continue to do business in Detroit.”
But, the Guild president suggested, these two newspaper giants would like to have union-free shops in Detroit, but she is convinced that throwing out the unions will never play in the Motor City.
“Detroit is not about jobs, it’s not about quality journalism, it’s not even about money ? it’s about greed and union-busting,” she said.
Out of touch?
Another newspaper that recently went to the mat with the Guild is the Washington Post, which reached an agreement with the union local last November after seven long months of talks that at one point involved a federal mediator.
Franklin J. Havlicek, vice president and chief labor negotiator for the Post, doesn’t share the new Guild leader’s take on the labor-management relationship.
Havlicek feels that the Guild, as well as other newspaper unions, are out of touch with the realities of the business, “the changing economics, technology and competitive factors” of concern to all newspapers.
The Guild’s tactics might have worked 40 years back, but not today, he argued.
“Collective bargaining is about both labor and management putting their problems on the table and negotiating a mutually beneficial agreement,” he said in an interview. “The Guild views this as a test of strength, which is crazy. It’s dysfunctional. The union should, instead, be trying to understand the real problems of publishers.
“Publishers need total operational flexibility in order to change what still looks very much like a 19th-century industry and to compete effectively. We have 10 different labor unions. That doesn’t exist anywhere but the railroads and the state and local governments. No other industry is organized that way. That kind of structure is obviously out of date in 1996.”
If unions have few allies among newspaper executives, they haven’t exactly found a champion in the Republican-controlled Congress, either.
Foley accused conservatives of “slashing and burning” the National Labor Relations Board. And the law of the land, she lamented, provides little punishment for those employers who would keep workers from trying to unionize.
“We talk a lot about the First Amendment in this business, but part of the First Amendment is about freedom of association and of assembly,” she said. “We in the Guild should be pushing for our First Amendment rights in this regard.”
Despite all that the labor movement is up against, Foley is upbeat about the future of her organization and of unions in general, noting that the AFL-CIO, the federation of which the Guild and Communications Workers of America are a part, also is under new leadership.
Although membership in the Guild, which primarily represents employees in the newsroom and on the business side, has declined over the last couple of years, it reached an all-time high of 35,000 two years ago and has exceeded the 30,000 mark since the 1950s, Foley pointed out.
The appointment of the first woman president is another promising development for an organization that is half female.
“The number of women in the work force is bound to be reflected in union leadership,” said Foley, who was also the union’s first woman secretary-treasurer. “It’s happening in the Guild, and we’re proud of that.”
Those who assert that labor is dead, Foley feels, couldn’t be more off base.
“When you look around the continent, both the U.S. and Canada, you can point to a hundred instances where we have been effective, where the union is more alive than it’s ever been,” she said.
“When the publishers in Pittsburgh and San Francisco were brought to their knees, you didn’t hear that unions were ineffective,” Foley added, referring to two major newspaper labor victories in recent years.
And, Foley contends, labor has the American public on its side.
“I think that people are quickly coming to realize in this country that the only organized voice of everyday people is the voice of organized labor,” she said. “It’s really the only cohesive group representing people who work for a living.”
Foley is enthusiastic about the Guild’s merger with the 600,000-member Communications Workers of America, which was overwhelmingly approved by U.S. and Canadian Guild members last fall. This is the first time the Guild has merged with another union, and the Guild is the largest group that has joined forces with the CWA, which spans several communications fields.
Foley said the time was right for this marriage.
“We now have resources we never could have provided members,” she explained. “You go into any city in this country, and there are CWA people there.”
CWA has eight district offices and 50 area offices, each of which has at least one staff person. This serves Guild members better than the union’s 10 field offices.
The union leader is particularly proud of the “convergence councils” the Guild and CWA are setting up throughout North America.
The groups ? made up of representatives from all media, including newspapers, broadcasting and cable ? will organize recruitment efforts, develop bargaining tactics and determine public policy at the local level, making decisions that will affect virtually every stripe of communications professional.
So, it appears that as newspapers broaden their focus ? delving into enterprises as diverse as alternate delivery and electronic newspaper publishing ? the largest newspaper union is doing the same.
“We’re trying to reach out to come up with strategies that help us address issues in a broad way, to form new relationships much more along the lines of the employers we’re facing,” Foley said.
As for all the hand-wringing about online’s threat to the old-fashioned print product, Foley insisted that technological advances aren’t the enemy and expressed excitement about the Guild’s role in the changing industry.
“We have to realize we’re not in the newspaper business anymore,” she said, sounding a popular refrain. “The business is being converged into other industries and becoming much more of an information industry.
“One of the challenges we face is the opportunity ? as well as the problems ? of the new information technology that rushes at us every day. We have to deal with that, and its effect on the people we represent.”
?(The bean counters are in charge, and those who look only at the bottom line have to understand that people are part of the equation in this business. You can’t treat people like beans.”) [Caption]
?(Linda Foley,) [Photo]