Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The New York Times Union Contemplates a Collective Chant in the Lobby — or a Public Demo

By Cynthia Cotts
 Photos added by Broadcast Union News

Just before noon on Sept. 24, a stream of about 200 New York Times staffers left the company’s headquarters at 620 Eighth Avenue, heading for the local hotel workers union a few blocks north. A meeting was set for noon to inform Times union members about the status of ongoing contract negotiations and to send a message to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. 

Those attending the meeting ranged in age from twenty-somethings to sexagenarians and in profession from journalist to operations to ad sales. Bold-faced names included reporters Michael Barbaro, Steven Greenhouse and Richard Pérez-Peña, not to mention columnist Clyde Haberman, who has worked for the Times since 1977. The meeting was called by the Newspaper Guild of New York, which represents the Times union.

“The Times has started to move a little bit,” guild president Bill O’Meara told the crowded room. “They need to move more.”

Bernie Plum
The union’s last contract expired in March 2011, and negotiations have dragged out a year and a half, led by Mr. O’Meara and Bernard Plum, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose who represents management. But now “the clock is ticking,” as Mr. Plum likes to say, and management has threatened to declare an impasse if a new contract is not in place by mid-November.

Problem is, management’s current proposal is only slightly more generous than the first one it put on the table, and union leaders don’t feel it’s enough. In an email last Thursday, the union’s mobilizing committee informed its members: “It’s time to get worried. It’s time to get organized. It’s time to fight back.”

To be sure, not every Times staffer belongs to the union, and not everyone is jonesing for a strike. As of last Friday, the mood in the newsroom was “dispirited,” one union member told The Observer. About 20 reporters had attended a negotiating meeting last week and heard for themselves the aggressive tone used by Mr. Plum.

Mr. Plum, who had previously threatened to replace the union pension with a 401K, has made minor concessions of late, such as agreeing to the union’s “adjustable pension plan.” At a negotiating meeting on Sept. 20, he eased up for the first time — offering about $7.5 million more overall, a move the union found promising, but still “not enough,” according to union statements. The two parties remain about $10 million apart in their offers, a guild official told union members at the Sept. 24 meeting.

“The Guild is pleased that the Times has finally made some movement in our direction,” Mr. O’Meara told The Observer in an interview last week, “and we hope we can build on it to get to a contract settlement that our members will find acceptable.”

Mr. Plum did not respond to a request for comment on the status of negotiations.

For all the talk of mobilization, as of last week, many employees were ready to accept the company’s current terms, including some of the web designers, who tend to be young and expect to change jobs in the future. Given the ambivalence, union members in favor of resistance decided to take it step by step. The first step was persuading 200 people to leave Times headquarters to attend the Sept. 24 mobilization meetings. (A second took place at 1:30.)

“If you only ever attend one guild meeting, make it one of these,” union organizers told colleagues last week.

At the first meeting, Mr. O’Meara asked the rank and file to stage collective “actions” to help the union put pressure on management.

“We are not planning a strike,” he said. “A strike is a nuclear weapon. It’s mutually assured destruction.” Instead, in the coming days, the mobilizing committee will call on the newsroom to act in concert, he explained, because “actions that germinate in the newsroom have the most impact.”

“silent corridor” demonstration of February 2012
He recalled the “silent corridor” demonstration of February 2012, when Times staffers lined the hallway outside a Page One meeting as the editors filed in. The initial trigger for the demonstration was management’s proposal to take away the pensions for staffers in the Times’ foreign bureaus, but the message had evolved into a broader defense of the union’s pension.

As examples of what’s coming next, Mr. O’Meara proposed launching a collective chant in the lobby, staging a public demonstration outside the building or setting up the inflatable rat — to which one man in the audience replied, “We want the rat!” Mr. O’Meara emphasized the need for solidarity.

As a second step, Mr. O’Meara asked all union members to sign a letter which was posted on the union’s Times web site today. Addressed to Mr. Sulzberger, executive editor Jill Abramson and incoming CEO Mark Thompson, the letter declares the company’s current contract demands “untenable and destructive” and asks the troika to “end the era of shriveling compensation.”

Recalling that the staff took a 5 percent pay cut in 2009 and that overtime pay has fallen by half since 2008, the letter argues that the staff has already given its fair share to produce ever more quality journalism for the company’s multi-media platforms.

“The news report in The New York Times, online and in print, is richer and more rewarding than ever,” according to the letter, which has no byline. “We are doing more, but making less.”

Finally, Mr. O’Meara invited union members to attend the next negotiating meeting, which is set for Sept. 25 at 10 a.m. He noted that when observers from the newsroom are present, management negotiators speak more respectfully.

In the Q&A session that followed, several staffers echoed O’Meara’s call for solidarity.

“None of this works unless everybody’s on board,” said Mr. Pérez-Peña.

“Members have to stand up and push to get what we deserve,” said Mr. Greenhouse, who covers labor.

And then they went back to work.

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