A Warning To Newspaper Managements p. 14

By: Mark Fitzgerald Labor lawyer Robert Ballow says declining union membership
and activism do not mean labor problems have disappeared sp.

WITH UNION MEMBERSHIP ? and activism ? continuing to run downhill, publishers might be tempted to ignore labor issues in favor of more pressing topics such as soaring newsprint costs and slumping readership.
But that would be a mistake, warned Robert Ballow, partner of the Nashville-based King & Ballow law firm, whose aggressive pro-management representation has made it anathema to newspaper unions.
"Employers who realize the importance of addressing labor issues will discover that by addressing labor concerns as a priority, many other problems will become manageable or may be eliminated," Ballow said. "Every aspect of the newspaper industry is somehow affected by labor issues ? from the content of the material published, to the production of the paper itself, to the distribution of the product to the consumer."
At the recent conference on international newspaper operations ? sponsored by the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers' Research Association (IFRA) and the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) ? Ballow suggested that the decline in union power has been offset by a rise in other contentious labor issues, such as age and sex bias claims.
Newspaper unions are indeed declining in membership, Ballow said.
In the newsroom, for instance, Newspaper Guild membership has dropped to approximately 27,000 ? about the level it had in the mid-1950s.
Production unions are falling off even more rapidly: For instance, the Graphic Communications International Union ? created from the merger of the two biggest press operators unions in 1982 ? has fallen from a combined 171,000 in 1979 to 124,000 in 1989 and 95,000 in 1993, Ballow said.
But there are more troubling statistical increases, thanks to downsizing, technology and the increasing diversity of the workplace, Ballow noted.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now gets from about 10,000 to 11,000 age-discrimination cases annually from all industries.
And sexual harassment claims have more than doubled in less than five years, increasing from 6,883 in 1991 to 14,420 last year.
A more newspaper-specific trend ? the replacement of child carriers by adults ? also promises to create more disputes, Ballow said.
"The shift in hiring adults for carrier positions has made the independent contractor issue a bit more unclear," Ballow said. "The [Internal Revenue Service] has been particularly active in seeking to obstruct the use of independent contractors," Ballow said. "When using youth carriers, employers could rely on the income-tax-code safe harbor that excluded carriers under the age of 18."
Most of the problems that arise from these sweeping trends can be ameliorated with training and quick communication, Ballow maintained.
"Where there are no labor unions, the transitions [caused by new technology] have been remarkably good," Ballow said. "Generally, most people, even older people, want to learn what's going on and do a better job."
But when layoffs, rather than retraining, is the solution sought, Ballow said, the key is to deliver the bad news fast.
"My experience is that most of the morale problems come with the anxiety of not knowing what is happening," he said. "Being upfront, telling people exactly what is happening and why . . . . you eliminate a lot of those problems to a great extent."


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