Hard times at the New York Times

New York Times union employees staged the world’s most polite union walkout yesterday, filing out of the newspaper’s headquarters for a brief period to protest the slow pace of contract negotiations. The Times Newspaper Guild has been engaged in protracted contract talks for 18 months, and the talks look like they’re going nowhere. So the union fired a dignified shot at Arthur Sulzberger Jr. yesterday, shuffling out of the Times’s glittering Midtown headquarters, walking around the block, and then heading back inside and back to work.

A union memo to Times Guild employees says the newspaper is looking for between $12,000 and $15,000 in annual pension and health care cuts. The memo portrays the newspaper’s brass as offering Times union employees a “poisoned chalice” of “perpetually shrinking compensation.” The Guild casts the pension and health care cuts as a “disaster, for us as individuals, and for the ability of The New York Times to attract and keep talented people.” And it mocks the Times Company’s efforts to create separate union contracts for print and digital operations, which have become intertwined in recent years. “We have more than earned fair wages and benefits,” the Guild memo argues. “We will accept nothing less.”

That’s all pretty boilerplate outraged-union-rep stuff. But instead of raising a ruckus on the sidewalk with scabby inflatable rats, as some unions do, the Times Guild sent the dignified message that they were mad as hell, and for 10 or 15 minutes, they would prefer to not take it, but only in a nonbinding, time-permitting manner. Union organizers went to hilarious lengths to make the walkout as non-confrontational as possible. It asked union members to walk out “if you have flexibility in your work schedule that permits a 10 or 15 minute break at 3:35.” And it assured employees that the rabble-rousing stickers Guild organizers would be distributing would only contain “very short” slogans.

The Guild contract negotiations come at an interesting time for the Times’s parent company. The Times Co. has been recording modest profits over the past year. However, according to a recent New York magazine essay, the paper’s controlling family is agitating for more aggressive cost-cutting measures that would allow the Times Co. to restore a lucrative special dividend for members of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan. New York argued that disagreements over measures like unloading the Boston Globe led Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to push the Times Co.’s former CEO, Janet Robinson, out the door, golden parachute in hand.

A similar cash-hungry family dynamic led the Bancrofts to sell the Wall Street Journal. Now it looks like it’s squeezing the Times Guild. Yesterday, Times Assistant to the Editor Walt Baranger told the New York Observer that the Guild’s beef isn’t with newspaper brass; Baranger told the Observer the Guild needs to win over the Times Co.’s board, which is a polite way of pinning the blame for union strife on Sulzberger’s extended family.  “News management gets it,” Baranger said. “We’re really talking to the boardroom — the people who don’t understand that journalists are not interchangeable.”

                                                                                                                                            –PAUL MCMORROW


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