By Michael Miner
Organized labor got whomped at two newspapers in Saskatchewan, and the delighted publisher of the Sun-Times promptly rubbed the noses of his employees in the fact.
This was a hostile act, and the paper’s tradesmen didn’t suffer it silently. They rejoindered in the unruffled language of lofty purpose, which has long been their attitude of choice in those difficult times when a new contract must be negotiated. As it must in 1997.
Every three years the Chicago Newspaper Guild comes to terms with whomever happens to own the Sun-Times at the moment. Months of fruitless acrimony drive the paper to the abyss; but as it teeters, cool heads prevail, and a new deal’s signed that’s much like the old. Managers tell one another that certain guild strategists would have gladly destroyed the Sun-Times in their blind hostility to rank and order. Guildsmen count it a triumph that their union survived to fight another day.
The Sun-Times contract expires on September 30, and the nastiness over Saskatchewan was more of the same old same old. But it also throws a light on what could be genuinely different this time around: the paper’s current bosses resent the unions not simply because they’re supposed to, but out of deep moral conviction. “They actually hate unions,” a former Sun-Times executive told me, “and they make no qualms about it.” As editor Nigel Wade told WTTW’s John Callaway some months ago, “I’ve spent ten years in communist countries, and I don’t believe collectivism works. I’m by instinct an individualist.”
Collectivism is much less of a bogeyman throughout Saskatchewan, where the worker-friendly New Democratic Party holds sway. A year ago Hollinger Inc., the chain that owns the Sun-Times, bought papers in the province’s two largest cities and immediately slashed both staffs. David Wilson, a Canadian staff rep for the Newspaper Guild, told me, “Hollinger purchased the paper, I believe, on March 1. On March 2 everybody got a letter to meet at such and such a hotel. They met on the third. They were divided up into four different rooms–salons A, B, C, and D. Everybody in salon D was fired.”
That was in Regina. Wilson couldn’t recall how the rooms were labeled in Saskatoon. At any rate, he told me, a quarter of each paper’s workforce got the boot.
Unsurprisingly, some of the survivors decided to organize. Guild reps such as Wilson flew in from Toronto to preach unionism; the Sun-Times unit sent a letter supporting the campaign. In mid-February the Saskatchewan Labor Relations Board conducted a certification election at each paper.
The guild didn’t come close. The cowering wage slaves of two demoralized newspapers feared to alienate their masters. Or as the owners would prefer to say, free will and individual dignity prevailed against the incantations of the collectivists.
David Radler, president of Hollinger Inc. and publisher of the Sun-Times, could have quietly savored his company’s triumph, but he’s not the type. Hand-to-hand combat when the guild and Sun-Times negotiate is always preceded by rhetorical artillery, and Radler decided to fire Big Bertha. To general amazement, he mailed a letter to the home of every single Sun-Times guild member in March. It said this:
“On February 7, 1997, your union executive, Jim Montalbano, wrote a letter to the employees of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and the Regina Leader Post encouraging them to join the Canadian Newspaper Guild. Notwithstanding the fact that Saskatoon [he meant Saskatchewan] is a socialist jurisdiction and the power of the Government Labor Board was used to encourage union certification by employees, the two newspapers turned down the opportunity to unionize by more than a 2 to 1 margin: 115 to 55 in Saskatoon and 137 to 57 in Regina.
“Our understanding of the reasons for rejecting the efforts include the desire to continue to receive merit pay, the ability to deal individually with their publisher, and the general feeling that the Hollinger family provided more than adequate security as well as the opportunity for career development.
“We do not know whether or not your union inquired as to these facts before it inserted itself in a Canadian election. Nor do we have a desire to assess for you individually the value added by your union dues. We do want each of you to know that we do not believe that your union’s involvement in an election 2,000 miles away is the most productive use of your dues.
“I believe that our feelings on this matter should be conveyed to each one of you individually.”
One guild member marveled, “He has, in the vernacular, a bug up his ass. ‘We don’t want to tell you what to do with your dues, but we don’t think you want them spent like this.'”
And Sun-Times unit chair Dan Lehmann told me, “It was the overwhelming majority of opinion in the newsroom that this was an affront, an invasion of their domicile by the company they just happen to work for.”
The union posted its reply on the guild bulletin board. “To reassure you about a minor matter that apparently has the publisher deeply concerned,” said the notice, “we want to give you the cost breakdown for our efforts to support an organizing push at two sister papers across the northern border.
“The cost of that effort was basically one 32-cent stamp used for postage. Generously factoring in the cost of one piece of paper and the envelope, let’s round it up to 35 cents. That comes out to about a penny for every 6 or 7 Guild members.
“Should it really matter to the publisher how the Guild spends 35 cents? Perhaps what’s more important is convincing the Chicago area’s newspaper readers to spend their 35 cents wisely.”
Gallantly left unmade was the point that Radler, who seemed so troubled that the Chicago guild would meddle in the affairs of a foreign nation, is from Canada. Nigel Wade is from Australia. Hollinger Inc. is based in Toronto and, for all its leaders’ contempt for the collectivist mentality, controls more than half the English-language daily newspapers in Canada, plus holdings in this country, Great Britain, Australia, and Israel.
“An Independent Newspaper” makes an inspiring motto for the Sun-Times, but not an altogether unassailable one.
Why didn’t you ignore the guild letter? I asked Radler the other day.
“I don’t ignore things,” he replied. “There are times when you speak, and times when you don’t speak. I chose that time to speak.”
I studied his letter. In what sense, I asked, did the Saskatchewan labor board wield its power to encourage certification?
“The laws would be totally against the employer in a socialist province,” Radler said. “You’re up against a kangaroo court.”
“For instance, they killed the first vote in Regina. They knew they’d lost, so they melded the votes together and forced another vote. They said the first vote was invalid.”
True enough, the elections in Saskatchewan were a fiasco. Labor relations board officer Peter Suderman supervised the voting in Regina, then drove to Saskatoon to conduct the vote there. But he mixed up his two ballot boxes, and Saskatoon ballots were added to Regina ballots–something Suderman and the two sides’ observers realized when they finished counting an impossibly high Saskatoon vote. Both elections were nullified, and in the second round of voting certification went down to flaming defeat in each city.
The silver lining is that the confusion let each side put its English on the results. Radler asserts prounionist treachery. Wilson asserts Hollinger treachery. He says Hollinger defied the labor board by leaking the first lopsided Saskatoon totals in order to demoralize the union organizers before the revote. Suderman says victory was always unlikely and the guild reps on the scene knew it. “They said they didn’t think there was any hope in Regina, but Saskatoon could be interesting,” Suderman told me. “After the screwup they said they’d thought Regina was in the bag.”
It’s impossible to be sure what’s going through the mind of a socialist lapdog a thousand miles away. But taking a stab at it, I believe Suderman’s mishandling of the elections made him sick. “It’s terrible–there was no excuse,” he said. “But there never is for blunders.”
A blunder? Radler thinks not. “Yeah, you’re really blundering,” he said sarcastically. “That would be like taking a ballot box from Cook County and sending it down to Merrilville, Indiana. They knew exactly what they were doing.”
I told Suderman the Hollinger publisher in Chicago believed he’d sabotaged the voting. “Well, I can only say in the strongest terms that that’s absolute hogwash,” he replied. “There’s not a shred of truth to it. I don’t know what to say except that it’s absurd and ridiculous. There’s no way I would put my credibility on the line like that. I’d be fired in an instant.”
Socialists actually fire people? I said incredulously.
“Oh, yeah,” said Suderman.
I asked Radler if dissolving the union at the Sun-Times was one of Hollinger’s goals.
“I’ve never expressed that sentiment,” he said. “I certainly would not encourage people to join unions, if that’s what you’re saying. I don’t think anyone’s under any illusions about that. But I’ll deal with whatever’s dealt in front of me.”
Nigel Wade had told John Callaway the same thing. “I’m not saying the unions here are communist,” he’d explained. “I’m saying the idea of a group representing the individual is not one that I favor.”
You wish they’d go away? Callaway asked.
“Certainly,” said Wade.
Will you try to break them?
“I’m not here as a union breaker,” Wade replied. “I’m here as a newspaper maker, and I don’t want to spend my time in Chicago fighting the union about anything.”
Dan Lehmann told me, “Anyone who comes here with the hope to bust the union will be sadly mistaken. We have no intention of rolling over and dying for anyone. The Newspaper Guild is in the process of merging into the Communications Workers of America, a 500,000-member union with some deep pockets. We have no intention of going off into the night. I’m sure Hollinger would rather have a nonunionized workforce–that’s been clear from the beginning. But so did Murdoch. So did Marshall Field V.”
But these owners are different, I said.
“This is a management that appears to hold great stock in certain principles,” Lehmann agreed. “I hope those principles do not get in the way of finding a fair and equitable settlement. The Harvard business school put out a wonderful little book called Getting to Yes. The first chapter of this book tells both sides of any negotiation that the first thing you must set aside is negotiating from principle. If you negotiate from principle it gives you very little wiggle room.”
Negotiations can begin any time after May 1, but they could easily be held up for months. Even if the two sides agree to set aside their principles and negotiate like Harvard scholars, other large trees lie across the road. Lehmann recalled that in 1994 bargaining didn’t even begin until the old contract expired, because of an impasse over the ground rules. Management wanted Sun-Times employees on the guild team to negotiate on their own time. The guild–citing tradition and convenience–wanted to meet on company time. A compromise finally broke the deadlock.
“The company’s made it clear this time they won’t pay for negotiating time,” Lehmann said. “They say this isn’t the case with any other union in the building. Well, I don’t care about any other union in the building. I care about the 50-year history of this union. But it’s a red herring. We get our work done. We always have, and we will again.”
I mentioned to Radler that the guild wants to bargain on the clock. “Well, the hell with that,” he said.
Or rewrite journalism.