Suicide at The Globe

Boston Globe employees, in rejecting contract concessions, let anger trump self-interest. Now, says Alex S. Jones, a longtime observer of the New York Times Company, their future looks even dimmer.

Elise Amendola / AP Photo

Boston Globe employees, in rejecting contract concessions, let anger trump self-interest. Now, says Alex S. Jones, a longtime observer of The New York Times Company, their future looks even dimmer.

The Boston Globe Newspaper Guild’s narrow defeat of the New York Times Company’s demands for contract concessions has almost certainly made it less likely that the paper can be sold. This is a bitter irony, as many of those casting "no" votes presumably want a sale to happen.

The Globe reports that The Times has put the paper up for sale and hired Goldman Sachs to manage the process. But a buyer willing to inherit a labor battle seems unlikely. Jack Welch, who has made Boston his home base since leaving the chairmanship of General Electric, has begun an online effort to scold the Times Company for its bad treatment of the Guild, which may be important because he is thought to be one of the few prospective buyers. It never hurts for a new owner to make friends with the unions, but it is hard to believe that he would offer them a much better deal.

Voting "no" was like mouthing off to a cop. It may offer momentary satisfaction, but you pay a severe price.

By almost any standard, The Boston Globe’s Newspaper Guild made a mistake in voting against the 10 percent cut in wages and the end to various benefits that had been demanded by The Times. The margin was narrow, but the vote was "no." Bad as that deal was, it was better than the alternative: a 23 percent wage cut for all Guild employees to begin next week. The huge wage cut will give the Times Company the same $10 million-a-year reduction in costs the Guild turned down, but now the impact will all be on the weekly paycheck.

It is possible that the national Newspaper Guild will intervene and find some face-saving way to stage a second vote. I saw this happen in New York, when the angry rank-and-file had rebuffed a “final offer” but then reversed themselves after getting a whiff of harsh reality. Rather incredibly, 20 percent of The Globe’s Guild members didn’t vote, which seems unlikely to happen if there is a second chance.

As a reporter at The New York Times in the 1980s, I was a proud member of the Newspaper Guild, and I covered a lot of life-or-death labor negotiations involving the New York Post and the New York Daily News. In labor disputes fraught with pain, it is not unusual for emotion to win out, and the temptation to tell management to stick it can be overwhelming. The Times Company is viewed by many at The Globe as bullying and arrogant, a view that much of Boston holds for New York in general.

Alas, in this case, the situation was like mouthing off to a cop. It may offer momentary satisfaction, but you pay a severe price. One can only imagine the conversations between spouses in the wake of the "no" vote as the reality of what has been unleashed hit home.

Looked at objectively, The Globe’s unions have almost no leverage. The Guild, which is the only large union at the paper to defy the Times Company’s demands, has begun a legal battle in federal court to stop the wage cut, but that is unlikely to succeed. The Times justified imposing the cut by declaring negotiations at an impasse, and fighting that in the courts can easily take years and be very expensive. The prospect of getting the Times to negotiate a better deal is all but nil, because doing so would require reopening negotiations with all the other unions.

A strike would be suicidal. And everyone—including the Guild members who voted "no"—recognizes that this is not a situation in which the company is protecting profits that it refuses to share but one in which the goal is to stem catastrophic losses.

When Guild members were asked why they voted "no," they tended to say that the Times Company was not being fair, that the pain was not being shared, and that they acted on principle. Unfortunately, principle in a labor negotiation is often a euphemism for pride and resentment, which is not how such decisions should be made. The only rational objective in a labor negotiation is to swallow hard and make the best deal you can.

Beyond the human drama that is unfolding at The Globe is a larger significance for newspapers all over the nation as they struggle to survive. Everywhere in America, in big cities and small towns, newspapers are going through the often brutal process of paring down their costs to meet the realities of a digital age. The economic downturn, with its steep drop in ad revenue, lent sudden urgency to what was, in any case, inevitable.

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To have any chance of enduring, newspapers have to build a business that can be profitable with much less money coming in. At many papers, this means scrapping the labor deals that were forged in much fatter days. The Globe’s lifetime job guarantees, for example, are relics from another age that newspapers can no longer afford.

The danger, of course, is that newspapers will cut costs so low that they will have nothing to offer their customers. But the industry’s hope is that, when the economy turns and some of the lost advertising revenue returns, they will be lean enough to contend with the real threat—digital technology. And that is as optimistic as the newspaper industry gets these days.

Alex S. Jones is director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is the author, with Susan E. Tifft, of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family behind the New York Times. His book, Losing the News, will be published Aug. 18.