Striking Poses at the Sun-Times

The Sun-Times brass knew months ago that the ’88 Newspaper Guild negotiations were going to be excruciating. And they had a plan. Management’s point man would be Tom Cunningham, a guy who could talk the Guild’s language. Publisher Robert Page’s right-hand man, Cunningham may have held the highfalutin portfolio of senior vice president-corporate development, but in his heart he was an honest-to-God sleeves-rolled-up newspaperman. For a time he’d been the Sun-Times’s sports editor.

The rap against Cunningham inside the paper was that he was an exec without a function–other than Page’s crony. But this would have been a huge function. The job as he and Page saw it was to bring in the austerity contract they believed the Sun-Times desperately needed, without a strike–which they doubted the paper was sound enough to survive.

Would Cunningham have made a difference? Would his fraternal rap have convinced the troops it was time to bleed for the generals? We don’t think so. But we’ll never know. By June, when negotiations began, Cunningham was out of the picture.

He’d been ousted in March, an early casualty of the internal power struggle that came to a climax in August when Page was bought out. Now Victor Strimbu Jr., a senior partner with the Cleveland law firm of Baker & Hostetler, does the talking for management, and Strimbu’s no more a journalist than the big shots he’s talking for. Bitter reporters enjoy ticking off the list: acting publisher is Charles Price, himself late of Baker & Hostetler, who joined management after representing the SunTimes in the ’85 Guild negotiations; chief operating officer is Page’s bete noire, Donald Piazza, an accountant.

And of course ultimate executive power lies in New York with Leonard Shaykin, the investment banker who’s chairman of the Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. How can you reason with such men! When management, after weeks of hemming and hawing, began serious bargaining this month by putting on the table (1) a 15 percent across-the-board pay cut, and (2) the elimination of a 10 percent night-pay differential, the staff felt not only threatened and affronted, but misunderstood.,

“I have a feeling deep down that Shaykin’s a good guy and he would like to have a nice product,” one of the paper’s best writers said poignantly. “But he’s listening to the wrong people [i.e., Price and Piazza]. If Shaykin would talk to the troops themselves, I think he’d be very surprised. If he would just get the right people running his show–they’re right here. We have fine writers. But there’s no inspiration, no guiding spirit.”

This touching plea put us in mind of Russian serfs who’d convinced themselves that if only someone could get word to the Czar about their miserable lives, he would set things right immediately. Beneath the executive layer that is oblivious to the logic of journalism–so goes an argument we hear repeatedly–incompetent editors abuse and waste their staff’s talents at every turn. Give us decent leadership–the argument continues–and we will give you a better, thus more profitable paper.

We don’t think Shaykin has spent much time worrying about his assistant city editors. But we bet he’s aware that Ken Towers, Page’s executive editor who is in power yet, is eyed with general disdain as an agile survivor and no more. And we guess the shifting of staffers around to make the most of the paper’s undersized news hole is the sort of microsurgery for which Shaykin has dim interest. He has a $130 million debt to service and a revenue stream too weak to service it. That is one immediate reality. Another is the Guild wage scale, which in his eyes is way out of line–both with what the Sun-Times can afford and with industry norms.

The top weekly minimum for a Sun-Times reporter is $866.04 (after five years), tops in the country outside New York, to be compared, for example, with $664.35 (after four years) at the Washington Post. Strimbu has hammered away at that disparity, and, as you might guess, the Guild has not been moved.

“It’s bogus. Totally bogus,” says Gerald Minkkinen, executive director and chief negotiator of the Chicago Guild. “What has to be looked at is what is being paid in Chicago.” Against the Tribune’s, the Sun-Times’s wage scale is what it ought to be, Minkkinen says. “If anything, it’s low.” The Guild is asking for 9 percent raises.

Tom Gibbons, chairman of the Guild’s Sun-Times unit, knows “for a fact” that the average salary at the Washington Post is actually higher than at the Sun-Times. The reason is that the Post is much more generous with merit raises.

“Basically,” says Gibbons, “what we’re saying at the table is, ‘You’ve made no argument of need. So open the books.’ And they’ve just said no. So basically, what we’re telling the company is, this is greed. You just want a bigger profit margin. . . . Page leaves with 2.5 million dollars and his golden parachute. And now these boys, out-of-towners from New York, want their piece of the pie. They’re taking everything that’s not nailed down and they’re not reinvesting in the product. That’s what we’re telling them at the table.

“What the company’s doing–they argue ‘You’re trying to hurt us.’ They’re putting a gun to their own head and saying ‘Don’t make us pull it.’ We’re not the ones forcing them to put these proposals on the table!

“We don’t have newspapermen running this paper. That’s what scares me more than anything else. These are guys who don’t know how fragile a newspaper is. They’re treating it like a widget factory. This paper is fragile. It’s near the 600,000 mark in circulation [we hear more like 540,000]. It’s got that leveraged buy-out. It’s got certain pressures on it. And a lot of short-term decisions are made around here to get the numbers up–never mind the demographics. Like they’re more interested in getting a Bears fan than a lawyer. It makes advertisers nervous. It’s a big mistake.”

A reporter says, “If they had come hat in hand, even if it was a lie, and said these are lean days but there are fat days ahead, we’d have been leery but it might have been OK. It’s not an honor to work for the Sun-Times. It’s still a good paper. There still are good things being done here. But it’s not worth bleeding to death for.”

Another reporter says, “If they had come to the troops and said times are tough, we don’t have a leader, please stick with us, we’ll make it worth your while. My God! the outpouring of spirit. Instead, you’re fools for sticking around. People have given them their hearts and souls and they’re tired and sick of it.”

So the lines have been drawn and are now being recited. The Guild has established a strike committee, and Gibbons says if they go out, it’ll happen sooner rather than later. “We’re talking weeks here, we we’re not talking months. We’ll take into consideration the time of year, holiday advertising, the Bears season, the new Sunday product. In February, there are less pressure points.”

The reporter who wished there were some way to appeal to Leonard Shaykin complained to us that in one recent, not untypical day, he wrote seven stories and two of them made the paper. The city desk doesn’t know what in hell it wants, he said, and is squandering talent and energy by the bucketful.

Unfortunately, there’s another way of looking at it.

There are now about 270 Guild positions at the Sun-Times, down from about 325 when Marshall Field sold the paper to Rupert Murdoch in 1983. Reporters think the paper is critically understaffed–when beat reporters take vacation their beats sometimes go uncovered–but if five stories out of seven don’t even make the paper, isn’t it obvious there are too many people around doing too much writing? Even before Page left, management had commissioned a city desk study of stories published against stories written. “They were building a rationale for fewer people,” someone outside the Guild who was aware of the study told us. To Shaykin, said this person, news copy is merely “product.”

And someone else from management told us that Charles Price once came up with a dashing scheme to save a bundle of money: cut back the Washington and Springfield bureaus to one person in each. “All the news is the same anyway,” Price is supposed to have said, “and we can use the wire services. All reporters do is complain and cost us money.”

(Price and Towers declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Lately, plumbers have been installing a new water-sprinkler system in the editorial spaces on the fourth floor, and one plumber spotted some asbestos in the library ceiling. Gibbons says he asked management to halt the work long enough for some tests to be run, and when management said no he complained to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. The very next day an OSHA inspector paid a surprise call. (The inspector told us there did not seem to be a serious problem.)

This happened last Friday, which was supposed to see another round of bargaining. Highly annoyed, management called it off. This week the Guild tried to invoke its right to withhold its members’ bylines. Management, apparently reading the contract upside down, said no. And that is the state of amity at the Sun-Times.

Little Shop of Ours

Our neighborhood is blessed. There’s a Popeye’s down at the corner now, opposite the Domino’s pizza, with Kentucky Fried Chicken a block and a half west and Burger King an easy walk the other way. We don’t have a McDonald’s that’s really convenient yet, and it’s a shame, but the way franchises attract each other it’s just a matter of time.

It’s been nice to watch North Michigan Avenue developing in the same way. Now Bloomingdale’s has given us a “Big City Store” all our own. It’s a lovely miniature, a third the size of the Bloomingdale’s at 59th and Lexington and looking nothing like it, that has taken its rightful place near the Marshall Field’s that’s an eighth the size of State Street’s, the Lord & Taylor a fifth the size of New York’s, and the Neiman-Marcus with less than half as much space as the mother store in Dallas.

It’s funny that Moosonee, Ontario, gets a Hudson’s Bay Company store and we don’t, but we shouldn’t complain. With so many flags flying, there can’t be another street like Michigan Avenue in the world (although we enjoyed some of the same tingling feeling as we watched our Popeye’s go up in ’87). The press has hailed the Bloomingdale’s people as geniuses of merchandising, and although nothing makes the press giddier than a new department store coming to town, this must be true. They’ve been wizards at pitching the prima facie absurdity that New York’s inimitable Bloomie’s can now be found in Chicago.

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