The Tribune’s War on Unions

The 11th Commandment, written substantially after the others, declares: “Thou shalt do what thou must if it shall enrich the stockholders.”

This advanced morality is now being practiced with keen expertise by the Tribune Company, which is waging holy war against the Daily News unions in New York City–after shredding the Tribune unions in Chicago. Perhaps few Tribune Company stockholders are less than delighted with the measures management is taking in their name. But we know of one.

Georgia Lloyd, who is 77, inherited her convictions from her grandfather, Henry Demarest Lloyd, a Tribune financial editor and editorial writer in the 1870s and ’80s and one of the great figures of the paper’s history. A passionate foe of monopolists such as Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller, Lloyd flayed them so mercilessly in print that the Tribune was accused of harboring a communist. By the time of the 1886 Haymarket riot, which the Tribune laid to “an incendiary and alien rabble,” Lloyd was out of step with his superiors, particularly his father-in-law William Bross, a Tribune founder who rewrote his will so that his stock would go directly to his grandchildren. “Henry Demarest Lloyd,” says Georgia Lloyd with no little pride, “was one of those who persuaded Governor Altgeld [in 1893] to pardon the remaining anarchists [three of the original seven] who hadn’t been hanged.” The trial had been shameless, but the Tribune now thundered, “Governor Altgeld has apparently not a drop of true American blood in his veins.”

In July 1985 nearly 800 typographers, pressmen, and mailers went on strike against the Tribune over issues that focused on lifetime job guarantees and traditional working conditions. The Tribune soon began hiring permanent replacements, and most of the strikers never worked another day at the paper.

On a cold and rainy day in 1986 the hapless unionists rallied in front of the Tribune Tower to mark the 100th anniversary of the Haymarket riot. Georgia Lloyd came and spoke. “As a stockholder,” she recalls, “I felt rather responsible and guilty.” Afterward, Frank Nessinger, a striking pressman, invited Lloyd to lunch. “I think she rather enjoyed it,” he says. “She doesn’t get out much anymore.”

Georgia Lloyd did more than enjoy herself. She owns more than half a million shares of Tribune Company stock, and she appointed Nessinger her proxy.

Were the pressmen grateful? we asked her the other day. “Well, I guess so,” she said. “They seemed pitifully grateful, I must say, to anybody that showed them humanity and sympathy. It’s just pitiful that they’re that grateful. It’s a comment on the times, the state of our society.”

Up against something like 71 million voting shares of Tribune stock, there is little Nessinger can accomplish with his proxy. But once a year he mingles on a first-name basis with the very gentlemen who tried to destroy his union.

They have nearly but not quite succeeded. In fact, this past October Nessinger was actually called back to work. Five years after walking out, he returned to Freedom Center, the Tribune’s huge riverside printing plant. He returned to the same equipment and to the same union salary, but to a sea of unfamiliar faces–all those nonunion replacements who marched in years ago and are now paid thousands of dollars less than he is.

So how is it back in Freedom Center? we asked Nessinger. “They stole the name from the Salvation Army, but to me it’s a penitentiary,” he said sunnily. “It has a big brick-and-wire fence around it. They use dogs and guns. To me, that’s a penitentiary.”

Brumback’s Act: Will It Play in NY?

The ’85 strike is generally remembered as a rout. The Tribune flensed millions of dollars from its payroll, while any dip in the quality of the product was too fleeting to matter. The battered Chicago tradesmen would later advise their New York counterparts not to strike, no matter how provoked. Once out the door, they’d have to crawl back in–if they got back in at all.

But the Daily News strike has gone differently. In New York ten unions walked out, among them the drivers (in Chicago, the Teamsters made a separate peace) and the editorial staff (the Tribune’s isn’t organized). The result has been a far more violent strike than Chicago knew, a daily paper that’s a shadow of its old self, and massive distribution problems. The Daily News has lost harrowing amounts of circulation and advertising.

And management has taken a pounding in the press.

Alex S. Jones, New York Times: “[Daily News] executives said the planning was flawed, partly because of a macho tone reflecting the attitude of Charles T. Brumback, president of the Chicago-based Tribune Company. . . . Mr. Brumback had crushed a strike at the Chicago Tribune in 1985.”

Greg David, editor of Crain’s New York Business, writing in Crain’s Chicago Business: “When Charles Brumback . . . flew into town last week, I was reminded how hard it is to be an ally of the News with the specter of Brumback back there in Chicago. His visit showed how Mr. Brumback is inflicting lasting damage to Tribune Co. even as he seems to march from hardball success to record profits.”

Aaron Bernstein, Business Week: “If labor has a 1960s mentality, [Tribune Company] management seems locked in a 1930s time warp.”

Former Daily News editor James Wieghart, writing in the New York Times: “The public should keep in mind that these costly and outmoded work practices [that the Daily News management wants to eliminate] were negotiated into contracts agreed to by management since the 1960’s. It is unreasonable to expect the unions to give them up in one sitting, particularly to a management that cannot be trusted. . . . Readers and advertisers should see this strike for what it is: a premeditated effort to break the unions . . .”

The Daily News is losing $100 million a year and Brumback might think he deserves a little more sympathy than he’s getting. But Chicago’s chickens have come home to roost. Nothing more was at stake in ’85 than the familiar grails of a docile workforce and higher profits. Yet Brumback, then the president of the Tribune, chose to pursue these prizes with tactics that seem more unscrupulous with each passing year.

To begin with, there was the counsel the Tribune chose, the Nashville law firm of King & Ballow. The trouble with King & Ballow, which is still tied up in rearguard legal skirmishing in Chicago while its main force jousts in New York, is that by 1990 it had become the Roger Ailes of union bashers. A newspaper that hires King & Ballow to handle its next labor talks doesn’t just send a signal that it means business–it signals that it is going to war, and will do almost anything to win it. As Lynn Martin discovered when she hired Ailes, there are some tough maneuvers you don’t recover from.

The three unions that struck the Tribune in ’85 eventually accused the Tribune of bargaining in bad faith and turned to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for help. The dispute with the typographers wound up in U.S. District Court, and in 1988 a federal mediator appointed by the bench brought off a settlement that saw the Tribune ante up $8.5 million to finance annuities for about 120 printers with lifetime contracts who’d hit the bricks in ’85 and never worked for the Tribune again. (Another 63 were allowed back in at reduced pay and benefits in early ’86.)

An NLRB administrative law judge found last year that the pressmen’s economic strike “was converted into an unfair labor practice strike” by the Tribune’s “refusing to bargain in good faith.” The Tribune had offered terms it knew were intolerable, narrowing the union’s jurisdiction inside Freedom Center so radically that the striking pressmen could not possibly sign a new contract.

The three unions did, however, call off their strikes in early ’86. The judge also found that the company then tried to conceal manpower shortages inside its pressroom in order to avoid having to recall union pressmen who wanted to go back to work. The judge derided testimony he’d heard from the man who’d been the Tribune’s pressroom manager at the time; he called the testimony “an obvious fabrication.”

The judge ordered the paper to restore 74 union pressmen to their jobs and seniority, 74 being the number of nonunion replacements the Tribune hired after the pressmen asked to come back.

Just this past September, a second law judge ruled in favor of the Tribune’s mailers. The decision cites a wondrous example of corporate chutzpah. In July ’87 the mailers suddenly voted to accept the Tribune’s last offer, which–perhaps inadvertently–was still on the table. The indignant paper responded that it no longer recognized the union. And to the judge’s wonderment, the Tribune later argued in hearings that the mailers had had no right to accept the offer because doing so wasn’t in their own best interests.

“This contention is completely without merit,” the judge wrote in his decision. “I am unaware of any authorities permitting an inquiry into the motives of either an employer or a union when one accepts, [his emphasis] rather than rejects, the contract offer of the other. . . . In the last analysis, it is for the employees . . . not the employer, to determine what is in the best interests of the employees.”

The judge ordered union mailers reinstated in the Tribune mail room as vacancies occur.

The Tribune appealed both these NLRB decisions to the full board, which is a mill that grinds exceedingly slowly. If the board upholds its judges, then the Tribune can appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. If in the end, after more years go by, the Tribune Company loses on all counts, what has it lost, really? That $8.5 million, some back pay–chump change. Its workforce will be overwhelmingly nonunion, its wage scales sensible.

The only thing the company squandered in Chicago that could possibly come in handy now in New York is its good name.