There’s probably no good way to learn that your employer wants you to do the same amount of work for less money. But the manner in which the editorial staff of the Boston Globe made this discovery was especially awkward.
On Monday, June 23, Arthur Sulzberger and Janet Robinson — the chairman and president/CEO, respectively, of the New York Times Company, which has owned the Globe since 1993 — dropped by the paper’s Morrissey Boulevard headquarters. The impetus for their visit was a retirement party for Al Larkin, the Globe’s outgoing executive vice-president and spokesman; prior to Larkin’s shindig, they spoke with newsroom department heads and held a paper-wide “town meeting” in the Globe’s William O. Taylor Room. The latter session was strikingly well-attended — people were reportedly sitting in the aisles and standing in the doorways — and a number of subjects came up: the advertising department’s ongoing struggles selling boston.com; the possible closure of the Globe’s printing plant in Billerica; the question of whether the Times Company will keep the Globe or try to sell it.
Most notably, however, there was the awkward topic of a possible wage cut. How, asked Globe mailroom employee Dan Caplette, can you justify management’s proposal to slash union salaries by 10 percent? In response — and as the Globe’s editorial employees wondered what the hell the mailroom guy was talking about — Globe publisher Steve Ainsley, who was also present, stressed that the wage-cut request was part of a broader collective-bargaining process. Despite “significant financial pressure” on the paper, he added, nothing had been decided yet. Sulzberger’s reply, when it came, featured the dreaded catch phrase of 21st-century journalism. “We’re trying to do more with less,” he explained. “We have to redefine what the Boston Globe is in a new universe.”
All of which raises a couple questions: first, why did the mailroom guy know more about the state of the paper’s labor relations than its reporters did? And second, is the Globe really about to pluck a few thousand dollars out of each of its union employees’ pockets?
Holding on, moving forward
The answer to the first question is pretty simple: union representation. The Globe’s mailroom employees are represented by the Boston Mailers Union, Teamsters Local 1, Boston, which Caplette heads. The editorial staff, by contrast, is represented by the Boston Newspaper Guild (BNG), the largest union at the paper. And despite being informed of the wage-cut proposal in a June 18 letter from Globe senior V-P Gregory Thornton, BNG president Dan Totten still hadn’t informed his members one week later. Which meant that they finally learned about the prospective salary reduction either when Caplette brought it up, or when they saw a quote from Totten in the June 25 Boston Herald, or when Totten finally e-mailed his members the same day the Herald story ran.
Not surprisingly, some editorial employees were irked that they weren’t informed sooner. And for some, the delay has raised a bigger question: how well served, exactly, are the paper’s reporters and columnists by their union representatives? (Totten worked in travel advertising at the Globe; the union represents not just editorial staff, but also workers in finance, production, marketing, and design.) “It’s weird having white-collar and blue-collar workers in the same union, because they think differently,” this staffer complains. “They’re trying to preserve something that’s dying. We understand it’s dying, and we don’t want to hang on to it. We want to go forward.”
But not everyone in the newsroom was piqued. Another editorial employee actually took solace in the union’s delayed response, arguing that the lag time suggests that the wage-cut proposal is nothing to get too excited about. “If the union thought it was serious, they would have mentioned it beforehand,” he argues. “This might be a way of saying, ‘Gosh, times are tough. Here’s one option. Let’s look to see if there are other options.’ ”
Right now, in the Globe newsroom, this is the prevailing interpretation of the wage-cut proposal: it’s a tactical gambit that’s really aimed at pushing the paper’s unions to re-open their collective-bargaining agreements and accept other concessions. “The idea” — i.e., the wage cut — “is so ridiculous that there’s no way people will agree to it,” a third newsroom staffer says. “There has to be a different endgame.”
It’s possible, though, that this confidence is misplaced. According to one source, the Globe’s losses in 2008 have been even worse than Ainsley anticipated in a grim forecast earlier this year. (Ainsley declined comment for this story.) There are a number of other steps that could help shore up the paper’s finances. The potential closure of the Billerica plant would save money. So will the planned incorporation, this coming September, of the Globe’s currently stand-alone business pages into the City&Region section. And so, too, could the elimination of the paper’s famed job-security list, which guarantees work in perpetuity to a fortunate few employees, should they so desire. (Some names on said list: recent Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Feeney; political columnists Scot Lehigh and Joan Vennochi; metro editor Brian McGrory; feature writer Irene Sege; metro columnist Adrian Walker; and cartoonist Daniel Wasserman.)