Labor Strife? At ‘In These Times’?

In These Times is throwing itself on the generosity of its readers. An open letter from editor-publisher James Weinstein that’s running in the next issue begs for money.

“Here’s where we are,” writes Weinstein: “We owe our freelance writers and photographers some $100,000. Many will no longer write for us and others are angry. We owe a wide range of suppliers tens of thousands of dollars more, which means that promotional operations are threatened. And our paychecks are beginning to bounce like spilled ping pong balls.”

Weinstein’s in a tricky situation. Publishers operating on shoestrings are past masters at putting off the contributors they’re in arrears to. But Weinstein’s contributors speak with one voice. As a passionately prounion socialist newspaper was pretty much bound to, two years ago In These Times signed a labor agreement with the National Writers Union.

“It’s a funny kind of situation,” Weinstein told us. “This is a paper that has always based itself on support for the unions. When they came to try to organize us, it was probably the easiest organizing job that any union’s ever had. But the writers are the only people you can screw without getting the paper shut down. So regardless of our intentions, that’s what happens to them.”

Where did all that debt come from? we asked Weinstein.

“We’ve always been in a financial bind,” he told us. “We started out [in 1976] badly undercapitalized. We’ve always been hand-to-mouth. We’ve always been a week or two away from disaster. We’ve had paychecks bouncing going back to 1977. That’s just been our way of life.”

Lately, the finances went from bad to worse. “We’ve had three things operating,” Weinstein said. “The recession itself. The collapse of not just Communism, which our readers are overwhelmingly pleased with, but the overall disillusionment with socialism and the Left in the United States–which, to put it mildly, is in disarray. And then there’s the cynical attitude people have to politics these days.

“We’ve done relatively well in presidential years,” he went on. “In 1988 we gained 10,000 subscribers . . . people beginning to see some kind of meaningful politics taking place.” But although circulation reached a high water mark in ’88 of 35,000 copies per issue, since then it’s fallen off by nearly 10,000 copies. “I’m sure we’ll do well next year, particularly if some of the candidacies like Harkin go anywhere,” Weinstein said. “When people get interested in politics, our circulation goes up.”

So there’s hope. Another thing Weinstein has to look forward to is an inheritance. “My mother died two years ago and left a rather substantial amount of money,” he said. “I thought, oh, now at least we’ll be stable financially. But the estate hasn’t been settled yet.” When it is, he told us, “there’ll be enough money there that when we get into a crisis, I’ll be able to put money in to bridge it.”

But he’s in a crisis now, and there’s no bridge. Last December, Weinstein cut his staff’s salaries by 10 percent and shifted writers John Judis, David Moberg, and Salim Muwakkil from full to half time, all with an eye to squaring accounts. But by the union’s reckoning, his paper still owes some 450 free-lancers more than $130,000–a debt even larger than the one Weinstein acknowledges in his open letter.

How aggressively should the writers’ union go after a shop that was right-thinking enough to sign a contract with it in the first place? It’s a question that’s divided the writers. Earlier this year the union surveyed members with claims against the paper; by a narrow margin they favored an amicable, discreet approach over pitched battle.

Some responses:

“Step up the pressure, yes. Open battle, no.”

“I am totally opposed to the concept that leftist, feminist, gay etc publications can exploit writers in the name of the movement.”

“I know that writers always get it in the neck. But in this case the publication (unlike, say, the Nation) has no prospect of being able to corral a big group of reliable donors, and no hope at all of breaking even. I’m rejoining NWU to tell you that I think ITT is not the paper to go after.”

“Rich socialist publishers are as responsible and should be held responsible for paying their workers as any capitalist pig.”

“It would be scandalous if the NWU, after failing to win a contract w/a single major magazine uses its very small clout to wipe out a marginal, socialist, pro-labor publication like ITT. It would be, to say the least, very self-defeating.”

But last month, relations between the union and the newspaper went through a sea change. The NWU had been talking to Weinstein about a joint fund-raising campaign tied to the 15th-anniversary issue a few weeks off. Together, they’d appeal to subscribers and friendly trade unions for help. “He said he needed to raise $25,000 for operating costs, and anything in excess of that the union could have in back pay to writers,” says Cynthia Sims, grievance chair of the NWU’s Chicago local. “He said it was conceivable we could raise 50 or 60 thousand dollars. We thought that was wonderful.”

But then Weinstein thought twice. He had other creditors to worry about, and they scared him more than the writers did. So he changed the terms of his offer. He still wanted the writers’ union to help him raise money; but the union would have to settle for a smaller cut of the pie.

Two weekends ago at a meeting in Minneapolis the executive board of the NWU voted no deal. Furthermore, the board decided that the union had tiptoed around its problems with In These Times long enough. When we called Sims last week, for the first time she was happy to talk.

“We feel Jim is taking advantage of us,” she said.

Feeling done to, the union is striking back. The other day a letter went out over the signature of the NWU’s president, Jonathan Tasini. It’s addressed to the labor unions that In These Times turns to for help during every anniversary fund-raiser.

“We are appealing specifically to those within our movement to press In These Times to honor its own pro-labor editorial stance by improving relations with its unionized workers,” Tasini said. “Please inform In These Times that your contribution is to be used exclusively for payment of their debt to freelance writers.”

You’re not asking the unions to boycott In These Times? we wondered.

“Oh no, we’re not!” Sims said. “No one wants to put the paper out of business.”

Our Inscrutable Dailies

Have Chicago’s dailies decided to reinvent the form? Last week the Tribune showed that it is completely rethinking the front page. Newspapers’ last bastion of hard news–the upper right-hand corner of page one–fell to senior writer Richard Christiansen’s soggy farewell to Les Miz.

What this puffery was doing anywhere in the paper at all is almost as big a question as what it was doing on the sacred patch of newsprint where a Moscow or Washington dateline normally presides. But the experimental placement, however peculiar, paled in effect next to the Sun-Times’s experiment in journalistic schizophrenia.

“Are We World Class?” asked that paper’s front page two Sundays ago. Maybe yes, maybe no, according to the Sun-Times’s passel of witnesses–people like Ardis Krainik, director of the Lyric Opera, and Julie Mautner, a former Chicagoan who edits Food Arts magazine in New York. But the paper thought so highly of its question that it asked the public to chime in. “Do you think Chicago is a world-class city? Why?” asked a clip-out coupon. It also wondered, “Which are world class?” and listed such nominees as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Saul Bellow, Marva Collins, and Uno’s pizza.

Friendly, interactive Sunday journalism. Creative. Worth a try.

But that’s not how the Sun-Times saw it at midweek.

Tearing into itself with the virulence of an autoimmune disorder, the Sun-Times angrily trashed its own proposition. Is Chicago world class? Replied the editorial voice of the paper that asked the question, “Do we, should we, really care . . . ?”

The editorial page went on, “Why on earth should we care whether people beyond Chicago, people who don’t live here, people like an editor of some obscure New York food magazine who was quoted in the Sunday story, regard Chicago as a ‘world class’ city?”

In other words, what on earth were we doing putting this crap on page one?

“All this business about what is and what is not ‘world class,'” the editorial page snarled, “reflects only that overworked and worn-out ‘second city’ nonsense gone global. Forget it.”

Papers run piddling corrections all the time. Never before did we see one up on its hind legs pissing on itself.

Burge Watch

We’re still waiting for the Police Department to release its report on Jon Burge. Burge is the focus of allegations, cited in Amnesty International’s 1991 global survey of human rights violations, that between 1972 and 1984 officers at Area Two “systematically tortured or otherwise ill-treated more than 20 people.” From ’81 to ’86, Burge commanded Area Two Violent Crimes.

Under mounting public pressure, the Office of Professional Standards has reinvestigated Burge. Mary Powers, coordinator of Citizens Alert, tells us that at a meeting August 13, Superintendent LeRoy Martin indicated that the OPS report would become public in about two weeks.

It hasn’t. Members of groups like Citizens Alert and the Task Force to Prevent Police Violence are pretty confident that the report would embarrass the city. Some think it’s being sat on by Martin–who was Burge’s direct superior at Area Two in 1982 and ’83. Others suspect Mayor Daley.

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