By Michael Miner
An Unprintable Fate
The Sun-Times has come in for criticism lately over its campaign to rid itself of senior Washington reporter Basil Talbott. So it's only fair to report the sensitive put-'em-out-to-pasture strategy the paper has concocted for some other employees. It's a program that's earned federal recognition.
Last year 21 printers who belong to the Chicago Typographical Union brought the matter to the attention of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They charged the Sun-Times with age discrimination, complaining that the newspaper had begun transferring senior composing-room employees to servile labor in order to inspire them to quit.
The newspaper couldn't just fire these workers; in 1994, after six years of negotiations with the CTU, the previous owners had signed a contract guaranteeing the paper's 96 remaining printers lifetime job security. This was already an old bunch--no one had been hired since the early 70s, and their ages ranged from 49 to 79. The idea was to keep them active while nature ran its course.
"The concept was that as manual paste makeup was eliminated and they started putting papers together electronically, the printers might be put into other departments than the composing room," says Steve Berman, president of CTU Local 16. "The concept was to let the printers move into other departments where the new technology would be." Whatever department they were moved into, their wages couldn't be reduced.
New owners, new concept. By the spring of 1997 the number of printers was only down to 78. Nature, in the view of Hollinger International,
wasn't progressing quickly enough. According to the eventual EEOC report, the Sun-Times told the printers that it intended to transfer 15 of them to jobs selling the paper door-to-door. But they had a choice. They might want to consider taking a buyout instead--retiring for a lump-sum payment of as much as $53,000 plus help with medical insurance.
If selling newspapers door-to-door strikes you as the sort of honest toil only a contemptible idler would turn down, it didn't strike the union that way. Nor, for that matter, did it impress John Rowe, district director of the EEOC.
"The sales job was highly undesirable inasmuch as the work was menial, compared to the skilled craft position of a printer," Rowe stated this year in the EEOC report, "and entailed terms and conditions which were difficult and hazardous, such as extremes of temperature and weather and neighborhoods which were considered unsafe."
"I was going to bungalows, up and down stairs. There are a lot of gangbangers out there," says one printer, who spent last summer on the northwest side and is now hawking papers in the Loop. "I had rottweilers coming through the screen. Walking around with my clipboard, people thought I was a city worker and stayed away from me."
"Between April 1 and June 30, 1997," Rowe wrote, "at least 15 printers were involuntarily transferred to door-to-door sales." For legal reasons these were the printers covered by the 1994 agreement who had the least seniority; even so, they ranged in age from 50 to 74. The printer I talked to had worked at the Sun-Times for more than 30 years.
"In the same period of time," Rowe reported, "15 printers, many of whom had been notified that they were to be transferred to door-to-door sales, opted to request and accept the buyout. These printers ranged in age from 59 to 79."
It's possible to find the managers of the Sun-Times guilty only of naivete. Here they were, innocently assuming that proud tradesmen gallantly kept on the payroll long after their trade had vanished were exactly the sort of loyal, grateful employees who'd devotedly hawk the product. "They say it's a privilege and an honor to be out here doing this," the printer-hawker I met in the Loop says. "That's how crazy they are."
But Rowe came to perceive a more sinister design. "Although there were numerous openings which would have utilized the skills and experience of printers, [the Sun-Times] elected to involuntarily transfer only five (5) printers to those jobs, such as platemaking and engraving. Other such openings were filled with hires who were all younger, most of whom were in their twenties."
What's more, Rowe went on, the record indicated that aside from this small force of aged printers, direct sales at the Sun-Times was handled by outside contractors. "The record also indicates that subscription sales by the printers were very low. However, [the Sun-Times] stated that they would not be subject to discharge for failure to meet sales goals."
These observations impelled Rowe to a dark, even cynical conclusion. "The former printers in those jobs had, in effect, three options: to remain in an undesirable, hazardous job; to attempt to transfer to another job, and thereby almost certainly lose their guaranteed wage as a printer; to accept a buyout....It is reasonable to conclude [the Sun-Times] limited this class of older workers in this manner because it believed that being in the door-to-door sales job would induce the printers to take an early permanent separation. It is also reasonable to infer that the printers who have already made this choice were impelled to do so, in large part, because of the prospect of being transferred to a sales job."
Rowe concluded that the Sun-Times had discriminated against the elderly printers by trying to drive them off the payroll. "Yeah, they want to make it as miserable as they can, so I'll take the buyout," says the printer now handing out papers on a Loop street corner. "It's menial work, you know what I mean? It's not what I--especially when I run into people from my parish. They say, 'What are you doing out here?' and I have to explain."
But he can't afford to quit. He fulfills his new duties with remarkable jauntiness, hailing regulars by name. "I gotta go with the program," he says. "I got too much time to go. There's no use getting sick inside. I don't want an ulcer."
"I have not heard of anything like this in the whole printing sector," says Berman, "of any employer making people resign because they're forced into a degrading position. And I'm sure, just as good business sense, that there are a minimal number of subscriptions being sold by these individuals who are making $19 an hour. Simple math would tell you you have to sell a lot of subscriptions to get that money back."
Berman's notion of what constitutes good business might need some freshening. There's even a phrase--"constructive discharge"--for the shrewd managerial tactic of using employees' self-respect against them. And though Hollinger's printer-salesmen are equipped to write up subscriptions, and occasionally actually do so, their principal mission appears to be inflating circulation by giving away stacks of papers. "They say, whatever you do, don't bring them back," says the printer I met in the Loop. "Throw them out."
Mark Hornung, the Sun-Times's vice president of circulation, wouldn't comment on the conversion of printers into newspaper peddlers, and Ted Rilea, the Sun-Times's vice president of labor relations, didn't return my telephone call. But Rilea told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher that Rowe's determination had been "based on a misperception of the situation and several material errors of fact."
The 21 printers are now awaiting "right-to-sue" letters from the EEOC. These would allow the printers to sue the Sun-Times in federal court and offer the EEOC's findings as evidence. Rowe's opinion of the Sun-Times's conduct was unambiguous, and it's likely to impress a jury.
It can hardly matter to Paul Robeson that he's now persona non grata at the Sun-Times. While Robeson lived, which is when it counted, the Sun-Times's ancestral paper stood by him.
As I've written, editor in chief Nigel Wade blew up a month ago when a profile of the late civil rights champion--who was too pink for Wade's taste--ran without his knowledge. It was puzzling behavior given that Robeson died 22 years ago, and this long after the fact a hatchet's more likely to be buried than whetted. But in this case there was no hatchet to begin with.
In 1945, when the NAACP awarded Robeson its highest award, the Spingarn Medal, Marshall Field III, liberal publisher of the Chicago Sun, made the presentation. And in 1947 Robeson said his piece to the Sun after the House Un-American Activities Committee had denounced him as someone "invariably found supporting the Communist Party and its front organizations" and city fathers in Peoria had promptly canceled an appearance he'd scheduled there. "If Communism means pointing out to the people that their lives are being dominated by a handful, I guess I'm a Communist," he told the Sun reporter.
Frederick Lowe, a former Sun-Times business writer, alerted me to this history, which he'd spotted in Paul Robeson: A Biography, written by Martin Duberman and published in 1988. Duberman also described the embattled Robeson's visit to Chicago in 1949: "All the major civic halls refused the use of their facilities to Robeson's sponsoring host, the Civil Rights Congress." But Robeson sang at Tabernacle Baptist Church. "Dr. Louis Rawls, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist, a man of deeply conservative religious and political values, had not hesitated to open his church to Robeson. 'I saw no reason,' Rawls recalls, 'why this church that serves the community should not allow these people to come in. Who are we to judge? They say Robeson "believes in Communism." Now, he never told me that. He said he wants freedom.'"
Rawls (the father of the singer) believed in letting speakers speak. Perhaps he felt a proper church should be no less a forum than a proper newspaper.
The old New Yorker may or may not have been a better magazine than the new New Yorker, but it certainly was sui generis. The new New Yorker imitates right and left. There's now a puzzle in the back, just like the Atlantic (and lots of other magazines), and there are the notes on contributors in the front, just like Playboy (and too many others to count). If one of its contributors has just published a book or won a journalism award, the new New Yorker feels a need to tell us, in the apparent hope of basking in borrowed prestige. There was a time, recent enough to recall, when the old New Yorker believed an appearance in the New Yorker settled the question of prestige.
Does anyone in town practice holistic journalism? Bill Bradley hasn't taken himself out of the race for president in 2000, and his friend Phil Jackson's on record as wanting a hand in Bradley's campaign if there is one: "I told him I'd drive his car," Jackson told Newsday last autumn. In 1996 Sports Illustrated reported, "The coach promises to be gone in two years and to move on to something really interesting--running Senator Bradley's possible presidential campaign is one idea." But in a thousand and one local interviews Jackson's given lately on the dismal subject of next year, has a sportswriter ever brought Bradley up? o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Archer Prewitt.