Picking on Scabs

A Tribune sales executive waiting to be airlifted to Baltimore this week asked not to be named and refused to discuss the mission. It’s possible a concern for reputation and personal safety made this volunteer bashful. Many an errand of mercy is mistaken by the natives for an invasion, and the arrival of strikebreakers is no exception.

This was the week the contract expired between the Baltimore Sun and its 600 or so Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild employees. Strike talk was in the air. Back in 2000, when the Tribune Company acquired Times Mirror, it picked up not only the Los Angeles Times and Newsday but also the less prestigious Sun, which it came to regard as the weak sister of the family, the one paper losing ground in its market. The Tribune Company decided the cushy guild contract had something to do with that. In its view, Times Mirror had been a pussycat at the bargaining table, giving the guild everything it asked for, including many of management’s prerogatives. When the contract expired, the new management would just have to take a lot of those back.

This spring, replacements mustered by other Tribune Company papers across the country slipped into Baltimore for training. They’d been attracted by the chance to earn a full Sun salary on top of their own while serving, it goes without saying, a higher cause. This cause was framed in handsome language in a recent staff memo from the publisher of one of the smaller Tribune Company papers, the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Virginia:

“The Sun has an obligation to its readers and advertisers in Baltimore and is committed to continue publishing The Sun without interruption in the event of any work stoppage by the Newspaper Guild,” wrote Rondra Matthews. “Other Tribune newspapers, in the long-standing tradition of newspapers everywhere, are ready to step in to help The Sun continue to publish, which is both its right and its civic duty. The Daily Press will be part of that support. Several Daily Press employees have volunteered to assist in this mission and will be leaving soon for Baltimore. We are proud of the support our employees are providing and look forward to their return.”

The same sort of snare-drum rhetoric sends a nation’s sons and daughters off to war.

The Tribune, which sent at least four sales execs to Baltimore for training, has an impressive history of coming to the aid of newspapers imperiled by their employees. It flooded the New York Daily News with “replacement workers” when several unions struck that tabloid in 1990. At the time the Tribune Company owned the Daily News, but a corporate connection has not been required. When San Francisco’s Chronicle and Examiner were struck in 1994, the Tribune Company rushed workers west. Sports columnist Harvey Araton, who’d gone through the Daily News strike, pointed out in the New York Times that the San Francisco papers “were not remotely connected to the Tribune Company. That’s how fanatical an enemy of labor the Tribune Company is.”

Charles Brumback ran the company then, and he’s remembered inside the Tower for abhorring unions. In a memoir, former Tribune editor James Squires said the rank and file thought of Brumback as “the Saddam Hussein of American journalism.” The antagonism of the present management is gentler. Under its eye, Newsday recently negotiated a new contract with its editorial employees in relatively cordial fashion. But as Chicago saw it, the Baltimore Sun’s old guild contract–if not the guild itself–was blocking progress and should be smashed.

Guild members tried to foist leaflets titled “It’s Not Too Late to Leave” on the replacement workers who came to Baltimore for training. The leaflets said, “We are not making outrageous demands of the Tribune Company. We just want to have a decent place to work. We have families to support and bills to pay. We are just like you. Imagine coming to work one day to find someone being trained to take your job. Imagine how it would feel after you’d worked long hours doing honest work for years. Some of us have worked here for decades. We are proud of the Baltimore Sun we have created. Whatever the company’s managers have told you about your stay in Baltimore, we want you to know that you are ‘scabs,’ a not-so-nice word for ‘replacement workers’ who take advantage of labor unrest to make an extra buck.”

Robert Drolen, a suburban sales exec for the Tribune, finished his two days’ training in Baltimore this spring and made it home before guild members could corner him with their leaflets. He was the only member of the Tribune contingent who talked to me. “It was a personal decision for me to help my company and to make a little more money,” he said. “My personal position is that I hope I can help the person at whoever’s desk I take care of, so that when they come back it’s in good shape.”

The Sun’s editor, William Marimow, used to cover labor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and he’s been on strike himself a total of 67 days in his newspaper career. When newspaper strikes loom, even the most popular editors tend to resemble trolls under bridges in the eyes of the working stiffs; their duty, after all, is to foil the strike by finding ways to go on publishing the news after the newsroom empties out. Thanks to the strong element of corporate imperialism that shaped the Baltimore crisis, Marimow seems to have escaped this hostility: reporters spoke of him as their guy, someone who’d just like to be left alone to go on publishing a Pulitzer-worthy newspaper. “Most of the editors are pre-Tribune and care a lot about the paper, as we do,” said Mike Hill, a Sunday Perspective section writer and guild negotiator.

The enemy was clearly Chicago. The Sun had been through other tough negotiations–there’d been brief strikes in 1978 and 1987. “But we have never seen the so-called replacement workers, or scabs,” said Hill. “That, to us, raised the ante considerably.”

“There’s a definite fear that the Tribune Company is big and powerful and we are just this little David,” a Sun reporter told the Tribune’s Stephen Franklin, whose account of the Sun conflict ran on June 3. Franklin showed some sympathy for the little David, and it was admirable of the Tribune to publish his story. He quoted a Cornell University labor expert who said that companies these days want to send a message to labor that the work world has changed and another message to their investors that they know how to find “shareholder uplift.” The Tribune Company has a rare nose for this uplift–the New York Times noted Monday that the Tribune Company’s earnings per share had jumped 42 percent last year from 2001. Though unions forlornly tell booming companies to share the bounty with their workers, prosperity usually becomes the position of strength from which the firms demand structural changes.

A Sun management bulletin posted May 27 asserted that the paper was in “serious competition” with the Washington Post for readers and advertisers and needed the same “operational flexibility” the Post had already negotiated with the same Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. It needed, among other things, the freedom to transfer guild employees from one kind of job to another and the right to assign guild work to nonguild employees, “including contractors.”

What’s that about? I asked Linda Geeson, the Sun’s director of marketing and communications.

“At the Post a supervisor can do unit work,” she said. “Why is that important? At the Baltimore Sun if a pile of newspapers falls on the floor a supervisor cannot pick them up out of the way. He must call an employee. In the past year we had a huge snowstorm. A photo editor takes a bunch of pictures of the snow and they run in the paper. But because he’s not a union member, the union files a grievance. Why are we fighting–and expecting arbitration–over things like that? That kind of stuff bogs you down. Let’s agree we can move past that and focus on more difficult issues, like keeping the Washington Post out of our backyard.”

Chicago’s picture of cutthroat competition with the Post that the Sun was fighting with one hand tied behind its back didn’t sway many reporters in Baltimore. “The Washington Post is in Washington and we’re in Baltimore,” said Hill. “There are certain suburban areas where we compete. I was an editor a year in Howard County. We compete there. I do not remember being hindered by any guild rules in competing with the Post.”

The Sun and Post guild contracts were negotiated by entirely different people, he said. “What they want is the language that we think is bad in the Post contract, but they don’t want to give us the good parts of the Post contract–like paid paternal leave, a healthy contribution to their 401k program. Plus they pay their reporters a lot more.”

According to the Washington Post, the average newsroom salary at the Post is $80,000 a year, at the Sun $59,000. “Here’s a perfect example,” Hill said. “One of the things they’re trying to make us take is so-called pay for performance. It’d mean reducing or eliminating yearly raises, and you’d get a raise if your supervisor thinks you deserve it. The Post doesn’t have anything like that.”

The Sun’s new owners said their goal was to create a “performance-driven culture” at the Sun. This pronouncement infuriated reporters who thought performance had always been taken seriously at their paper, which won a Pulitzer Prize this spring and was a finalist for two others, one of them for its coverage of the sniper killings; the Sun went head-to-head on that story with the Post, which wasn’t a finalist for its own coverage (though it won three Pulitzers). “Many, many people there are passionate about making this a great paper,” Geeson told me. “If you are that passionate and bring your A game to work every day, you should be rewarded for that. But there are people at the paper who after 30 years–or even after 2 years–don’t bring their A game and get the same raises.”

She went on, “What we’re saying is that you can have collective bargaining and pay for performance. They’re not exclusive.”

The guild membership would have agreed with that. They’d been telling me a paper can negotiate a wage scale and still pay its top people something extra for being exceptional.

A federal mediator took a leadership role in last weekend’s negotiations, and both sides reported on Monday that a little progress had finally been made. A proposed sick-leave policy the guild considered regressive was taken off the table by the Tribune Company. A compromise was reached on the pension plan. “When trust and respect are at the bargaining table, you can always reach an agreement,” Marimow told me.

And they’ve arrived? I wondered.

“Based on the events of the weekend, I think they’re developing.”

As it turned out, that might have been comity’s high-water mark. The old contract expired at midnight Tuesday, and at 11:15 the guild voted 319 to 102 to accept the company’s terms. The members voted against the recommendation of their bargaining committee and they voted with no enthusiasm.

“It was a horrible day,” Hill told me later. “They kept us waiting all day, and they came in at 4:20 and gave us their final offer. It had three little changes in it.” Hill had felt in his gut that the use of outside contractors, a management demand that the guild was certain would cost some Sun employees their jobs, would be taken off the table at the last minute. It stayed on the table. “This was clearly dictated straight from Chicago,” Hill said. “‘This is what we want. Get it.’ It feels like I’ve just been beaten up by thugs.”

By acclamation the membership passed a resolution asserting that “the guild member employees of the Baltimore Sun accept this contract under bitter protest and condemn Tribune Company for its demeaning and destructive conduct, for negotiating in bad faith, and for hiring scabs to replace loyal Sun workers.” The presence of those scabs had helped convince the members that a strike would bring them nothing but misery.

News Bites

From the pages of the Sun-Times, February 20: “I don’t give a damn about money. I want my son back.”

And March 21: “People who say, ‘Go to war and kick ass there,’ I want to know: Have you been there? Do you know what that means?”

And May 16: “No, I don’t think I’m Ness, but I sure as hell know I’m not Al Capone.”

And June 12: “Hans Blix regarding his detractors… ‘There are bastards who spread things around.'”

The Sun-Times believes in telling it like they said it, letting the chips on the shoulder fall where they may. Yet on June 13 it printed this paragraph:

“‘They’ve disdained us all along and they continue to do so,’ preservationist Charles Cowdery said of the university. ‘They really don’t give a d— about preservation and these kind of actions show they don’t give a d— about restoration.'”

Did a cynical publisher decide a little prudery might sell a few more papers, community standards be darned? I assume this misbegotten experiment with modest language was an aberration and won’t happen again.

A newspaper story can’t tell us everything, but a good one acknowledges what it doesn’t say. Last Monday the papers told the story of an Iraqi “convoy” destroyed by American missiles near the border with Syria. American intelligence had had reason to believe that Saddam Hussein and his sons might have been trying to slip out of the country in this convoy. The Sun-Times led its paper with the headline “Did Saddam Survive Ambush? DNA Will Tell.”

The next day’s New York Times reported that American officials now doubted that Saddam and his sons were dead and in fact now claimed that the possibility that any of them “were traveling in the convoy had been understood to be slim from the outset.” The same long front-page article told us that American special operations forces had also taken part in the attack on the convoy and that five Syrian border guards had been wounded.

But convoy of what? Was it a convoy of Iraqi tanks and armored cars, or a convoy of ’55 Nash Ramblers operating as a jitney service? And if Saddam, Uday, and Qusay weren’t traveling in this convoy, who was? Why was the American response to word of this convoy to kill everyone in it? Why did the U.S. seem to have no interest in taking Saddam alive?

Presumably these questions would be sorted out in the days ahead. The Times could have noticed it was raising them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.