Lerner and Labor: A Decomposing Relationship

From the annals of the undead . . .

The Lerner newspapers’ composing room at 7519 N. Ashland expired at the end of the workweek Saturday, September 3. Survivors were consoled in the traditional way, which is to pat them on the back and wish them luck finding another job. And the trucks rolled in to collect the stilled equipment.

But the old computerized Advantages that used to spit out ads for the Lerner papers were not laid to rest beside the Ludlows and Linotypes of times past. The trucks wheeled them west to a building in Niles where a new firm called Web Set Inc. had just set up shop. Web Set now typesets the Lerner papers. Come September 6, the day after Labor Day, the Advantages came back to life and went back to work.

The Chicago Typographical Union calls this a sneaky trick. Gilbert Cornfield, the union attorney, tells us Web Set is a corporation created by the CompuComp Corporation of Broadview strictly to do Lerner’s printing. Lerner has leased space in the Niles building and that’s where Lerner’s production manager and makeup editors now have their primary offices. And they aren’t the only familiar faces.

Thirty typesetters lost their jobs when the old composing room shut down. Lerner advised these journeymen to head out to Niles and look for work, and indeed, six of them found it. Of course they’re working longer hours, making less money, and enjoying fewer benefits. And there’s no union.

The Lerner papers are owned by the Pulitzer Publishing Company in Saint Louis, where thousands of decent citizens who swear the original Joseph Pulitzer is buried in the Kremlin not only do not read his Post-Dispatch but will not allow it in their homes. They should know about this archcapitalistic maneuver.

In other circles, however, the names Post-Dispatch and Pulitzer carry the stamp of enlightened liberalism. On the strength of this progressive image, Lerner employees held out hopes in 1985, when Pulitzer bought the financially straitened 49-paper chain, that an era of amity and deep pockets was dawning. In fact, the Post-Dispatch had always been a tough bargainer, taking a 43-day shutdown in 1973 over automation, a 54-day shutdown in ’78-’79 over economics. Its style hasn’t changed.

“From what I found out,” says Pat Butler, a columnist who’s president of the Newspaper Guild’s Lerner unit, “they tend to fight unions every step of the way. Those unions that can survive and give them enough of a fight eventually get something.”

If the Chicago Typographical Union gets anything, it will have to be in court. And the Lerner papers just seem to be toying with the Newspaper Guild. The editorial employees have been working without a contract for more than two years and talks are going nowhere.

The backdrop to the printers’ dispute is a “supplemental agreement” signed by the CTU and Lerner papers in 1975, as the papers shifted to computerized typesetting. Even though their traditional skills were becoming obsolete, the printers could control their own future; if they’d surrender their contractual right to prepare the ads and copy, they would be guaranteed their jobs until the day they retired or died.

Similar agreements were signed at the Sun-Times and Tribune. Thirty-eight months ago, the Tribune printers walked out, protesting working conditions that in their minds violated the terms of the agreement. The dispute has never been resolved.

Now the Lerner agreement has also fallen apart. It is a matter that labor and management come at with diametrically opposed perspectives. A former executive of the Lerner papers remembers Louis Lerner, the late owner, showing him the 1975 agreement after it was signed. Lerner was smart: he’d hung on to a way of laying off his printers–they’d go if their workplace disappeared.

The agreement said: “If the employer permanently discontinues the operation of its composing room in its entirety, it shall have no further obligation under this supplemental agreement . . .”

“Lerner in my judgment acted according to the contract,” said the former executive.

The CTU argues it’s been grossly violated. Thirty printers had been protected for life in ’75, and 18 of them were still working for Lerner on September 3. The CTU filed for arbitration to keep the composing room open and lost, but the union still hopes to prevail in federal court; it’s filed suit alleging breach of contract. Gilbert Cornfield said he hopes to get more facts out in court than the arbitrator would permit, in particular the full story of the financial arrangements among CompuComp, Web Set, and the Lerner papers. “Lerner has the right to buy their equipment back,” Cornfield told us. “The agreement’s only for three years.”

Lerner publisher Nicholaas Van Hevelingen wouldn’t comment and neither would attorney Sandra Zemm, who’s been speaking for management to the unions. Charles Libman, president of CompuComp and Web Set both, told us, “I’d rather not talk until all this blows over.”

The latest issue of the Lincoln-Belmont Booster tossed in our yard carried three front-page articles, one of them the weekly column “Pat’s People.” Patrick Butler wrote them all. Butler told us he’d have time to write even more if he didn’t have to negotiate with Lerner and worry about if and when to lead his unit out on strike.

We wondered why the Guild hadn’t struck Lerner ages ago. The old contract expired in July 1986. “You don’t go striking unless you’re absolutely sure that you can win,” Butler said. “These days it is not a friendly climate for organized labor. I’m not going to lead anybody on a kamikaze mission.

“But I don’t know how much longer everyone is going to be patient with this. We have the full spectrum of opinion ranging from despair to red-hot anger.”

Some of the Guild issues are economic, but many of the gravest involve worker rights and job security. Or, as management might view it, the power to hamstring. The company, for example, wants to eliminate the “evergreen clause,” which keeps an old contract in effect until a new one is signed; it wants the unilateral right to change any working condition not expressly covered by contract; and it’s after a variety of concessions increasing its freedom to use stringers. This is a major issue: whenever a stringer covers a story, a more expensive Guild reporter doesn’t.

“We have been in three mediation sessions so far,” Butler said. “Despite our best efforts to reach a livable compromise, they keep stonewalling it. Our feeling is they’re out to break the union.”

We asked the former Lerner executive if this could be true.

“Elimination of the union is not essential if you’re arguing over money,” he said. “A fight over the pie is a legitimate kind of fight. But the fighting’s over prerogatives, rules, who decides. If you’re arguing over management, you’ve got trouble.

“Lerner needs concessions to compete with the other community presses around them without unions,” he said. “The Reader’s competition. You wouldn’t live with restrictions in either area–editorial or production.”

So it sounds as if the answer might be yes.

SWF Seeks Partner With Money

Pam Berns needed to know a few things more about her audience. Even though readers of Chicago Life gladly line up to describe themselves each issue as “SWM”s or “DJF”s who “seek brainy physically fit beauty for friendship” or “belong in a tuxedo and behind the wheel of a Porsche,” certain cold hard facts remained a mystery.

So a year ago, Berns, the publisher of Chicago Life, circulation 50,000, hired a firm to do a readership study. The results were not everything she’d hoped for. The average age turned out to be 32 and income $34,500. “They’re younger and poorer than I had hoped. I’d have hoped for more like 40 years old,” she tells us. Ninety-seven percent of her readers had gone to college and 4 percent had doctorates–“not great, but it’s not bad either.”

Four out of five readers were single; nearly two out of three were women.

Berns identifies with her audience. A lot of people, she knows, are out there looking for something good to hang on to. “Everyone wants a relationship but not everyone knows how to maintain one,” she says. There are many things not everyone knows, and Berns wants to help. Two articles in the latest issue are titled “On Getting Rich” and “Leaving That Loser.”

Berns was not surprised to learn from the survey that 5 percent of her readers intended to have cosmetic surgery done on them in the next year. “Cosmetic surgery is the wave of the future,” she tells us. Other boomer earmarks include an obsession with fat and a deep concern about life in the hereafter.

“Those are some of the issues we’re dealing with,” Berns says. “Not as extensively as I’d like, but nobody else is touching these issues locally.”

This, then, is Chicago Life after four years of struggle. Pam Berns left a fine-arts career to start it up, and she still pastes up each bimonthly issue on her kitchen table. She’s not quite at the break-even point and she’s over $60,000 in debt.

Which is why Chicago Life, if not exactly for sale, is available. Berns seeks an investor who will pay her bills and give her the money to do the job right. “I’m still chasing my tail,” says Berns, “working a 120-hour week. I produce it all by myself.” She wants enough time to really tend to the look of Chicago Life and make it beautiful.

What Berns doesn’t rule out but least wants to do is sell Chicago Life outright to someone who will send her packing. She believes too much in her magazine’s mission–even though her own classifieds leave her with no illusions about her readers’ longings. “The women are looking for financial security,” she says. “The men are looking for someone with long legs and blond hair who comes from California.”

And even though Berns, at 41, is a little older than her readers and not the new age-ist they tend to be. “I have sophisticated tastes and the general public doesn’t. I love health, but I’m not crazy about exercise.”

On the other hand, “I’ve had cosmetic surgery twice in the last two years. I had some nose problems.”

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