A Blink at the Brink

At exactly 2:30 Monday afternoon Harlan Draeger stood up in the Sun-Times newsroom and said “I have an announcement.”

No one was doing any work just then. A few people already had their coats on. Others were straightening papers on their desks. Two-thirty was the strike deadline.

Draeger said, “I am authorized by the Guild to announce that we have stopped the clock on a minute-by-minute basis while negotiations continue.”

“Should we continue working?” Zay Smith came up and, asked him.

“We’re not on strike,” Draeger said.

And that was good. Anger has been corroding the Sun-Times newsroom for many months now–no, make it years; since Marshall Field sold the paper, since Robert Page bought it, since management two months ago put a 15 percent pay cut on the table. Still, very few people were itching to march out the door. After making the point that they had the guts to do so, they might be called back in two hours. Or they might be out on the street forever.

A few minutes later, word of an unexpected turn of events bubbled into the newsroom. The news came first from management, and that put its authenticity in doubt, but soon Draeger, the liaison between the Newspaper Guild negotiating team and the newsroom, confirmed the details. Management now had a final offer to make; but it would make it only if the Guild negotiators promised to present the terms to the rank and file.

The Guild team had agreed. The membership would meet in the Sun-Times auditorium at four o’clock.

It was disconcerting. Everyone had expected to be told to do one thing or the other, but not to thrash it out among themselves. The jumpy staffers wandered into the auditorium until they packed it, passing in the hall unfamiliar young security guards who had taken over the reception desk. A roar greeted the arrival of the Guild negotiators; and when he heard it from his office one room over, Irv Kupcinet, who has been a member of the Chicago Newspaper Guild since it was created in 1935, stood up and took a deep breath and solemnly lumbered next door to attend. A few days earlier, he’d said that choosing between the Guild and “the paper I’ve been with 45 years” would be “the most turbulent thing I’ve faced in a long time. I hope I never have to face it.”

So here was the final offer: a first-year wage freeze, a 3 percent raise the second year of a new contract, and another 3 percent raise the third. No, not good enough. A lot of people in the auditorium wanted more money now. The eight Guild negotiators were split down the middle, but the passionate debate cut in favor of heading out the door.

But in the end the Guild didn’t do that. It found a middle way. If you fault the Guild because it’s never struck, though it’s frequently rattled its sabers, then go ahead and say the employees stood at the edge and blinked. We think a blink was called for. A single day of mediation had moved the company from a net three-year pay cut to a net modest increase (never mind the distance moved from the original minus 15 percent). The issue of night differential had been settled in the Guild’s favor. It was a good day’s work.

When the Guild voted “unanimously” to neither accept nor reject the “final offer” and instead asked management to return to mediation, and management said it would, the new contract was close to being wrapped up. “When is a strike most potent? Before it happens,” said a Guild negotiator, defending the Guild’s step back. And now each side knew that neither side wanted one at all.

Fighting Words

In the heat of the hour, how did the two sides address each other? Six days before the strike was to begin, the following toughly worded letter was mailed to Guild members’ homes. It was written by Brian Fantl, director of labor relations and personnel.

“To all Editorial Department Employees:

“During negotiations, the Sun-Times and Guild representatives expressed a desire for improved relations and better communication between the parties. As a matter of fact agreements improving relations were reached, grievances settled, and strident rhetoric and distorted reporting by the Guild about negotiations declined. It was a promising start. Unfortunately, the promising start came to a quick end.

“As a result, both parties agreed to ask the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to assist in reaching a settlement. But the Guild set a strike deadline unaccountably, before negotiations with the mediator had begun.

“The Guild then compounded this irresponsible approach to collective bargaining by conducting a campaign urging an economic boycott of the Sun-Times by its advertisers. By its actions of the past week, the Guild leadership seriously jeopardized the livelihood of its members and helped the Chicago Tribune in its intent to cripple the Sun-Times. The intent of some of the Guild’s leadership was clear when one said on radio–‘We run the risk of killing the paper, unfortunately.’

“In our bargaining proposals, the Sun-Times has conveyed to the Guild its concerns about the high and escalating labor costs at the Sun-Times. It has done so in the belief that mature union leadership can deal with the Sun-Times’ concerns in a responsible manner at the negotiating table. From its recent actions, it appears the Guild has chosen not to do so.

“Strikes and economic boycott actions are not difficult to start but are difficult to end. No one should ever count on a strike being short. The Chicago Tribune and its unions are still dealing with the aftermath of the 1985 strike. Many of the Tribune’s former employees will never work there again. We don’t want those kinds of problems at the Sun-Times. . . .

“We have an excellent editorial staff and a well positioned newspaper. Negotiations are not a game. We urge each of you to consider long and hard where your best interests lie. Does anyone ever win a strike? We think not.”

Fantl’s letter was a professional mix of common sense and intimidation. Unbidden, reporter Roger Flaherty not only composed a response but posted it on the Guild bulletin board at work.

“Dear Mr. Fantl . . .

“You complain that we have set a strike deadline. You have no reason.

“For more than a year and a half our membership has gone without pay raises. Eight months have passed since we presented you with a proposal for negotiations, yet after all this time you are still talking about salary decreases as well as other issues which would severely affect our pocketbooks and our ability to function as a union.

“As a husband and father, I have obligations to meet and dreams to provide to the next generation. Part of that comes in my effort to do my best on the job. And I expect my compensation and job conditions to reflect the value of that commitment. It is time I believe for all managers and directors of this organization to take cognizance of those facts. Don’t tell me what ‘The Guild’ is doing to the paper. Look inward.

“In the words of Cicero to Cataline: how long do you intend to abuse our patience?

“In the period since our last pay increase, we have seen this company severely reduce staff–reporters, librarians, editorial assistants, copy clerks. Every day of the week, reporters miss important calls because of your decision to reduce the number of editorial assistants and copy clerks.

“City desk personnel–editors as well as editorial assistants–work under harrowing conditions in the best of circumstances. With your staff cutbacks, the daily toll has become intensely difficult.

“In the last couple of years, we worked under a publisher who generously promoted himself, while cutting corners everywhere. He surrounded himself with toadies and yes men and got the mediocrity he deserved. But it was not what we in editorial and other parts of the paper deserved.

“We have watched helplessly as young persons of talent have been driven away and older employees of immeasurable value have been hounded into early retirement.

“I for one am very conscious that a strike could mean the end of this newspaper or certainly the end of a paper it is worth working for. I do not look lightly on this possibility. But I assure you and all others who may be wondering that I would rather strike than continue to work for an employer who continually denigrates the value of my talent and labor.

“My sincerest wish for our paper is that the posturing stop and that a fair and equitable settlement be reached. Then I hope passionately that the people who have the power to act in the best interests of the Sun-Times will move quickly and forcefully to replace our ineffective leadership with people of vision, intelligence, hope and competence.

“Perhaps this is the kind of ‘rhetoric’ you decry in your letter to us. But I say it is not. It is a strong sampling of the anger that has grown day by day in the last year and a half. You chose to send a letter to my home; I think it fair you hear how it was received.”

Flaherty’s expression of the common discontent exhilarated his colleagues. We asked acting publisher Charles Price if he’d read Flaherty’s letter on the bulletin board. No, he said.

Peace at Last

Last Sunday the Chicago Typographical Union voted on its proposed settlement with the Tribune. Debate centered on how to divvy the $8.56 million the Tribune pledged to finance annuities for printers who walked out in 1985 and were never allowed back in. Finally that matter was set aside for a later meeting.

Will it win? we asked Carl Petersen, chairman of the Tribune chapel, as the printers were voting. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m only hoping. I’m only praying. It’s got to.” To Petersen’s joy, the settlement passed 180 to 43.

Now the union leadership can think about the Sun-Times. The contract there expires in mid-January.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.