Union Bargaining Made Easy
"This was head and shoulders the most extremely negative negotiation I've ever been in," says Lynne Stiefel, a Pioneer Press writer. "There was no generosity shown anywhere. There was no respect shown anywhere."
But then that changed. On January 20 labor and management sat down together and discovered that at least they had a sense of gallows humor in common. When somebody cracked that the money Pioneer workers thought they deserved was paying for Conrad Black's corporate jet, everybody chuckled. "Jokes were made on all sides," says Stiefel, who chairs the Pioneer Press unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild.
This session was interrupted when two of the management negotiators were summoned to the Sun-Times building for a meeting. But six days later the two teams got back with their federal mediator and worked out a new guild contract to succeed the one that expired on May 31, 2002. Last Sunday the guild membership ratified this contract by a vote of 37 to 5.
Remember in The Wizard of Oz how quickly the Winkies lightened up once the Wicked Witch of the West disappeared? A case can be made that the Wicked Witch deserved credit she never received for keeping afloat the Winkie country, where the only apparent cash crop was poppies. But she was nasty and no one liked her. It was sort of like that when Hollinger International's board reared up last November and got rid of Black and David Radler. His lordship, the flamboyant Black, has preoccupied the international press, which has gone crazy covering the troubles at Hollinger. But locally it was the departure of Radler, Hollinger's president, that mattered. Radler ruled in Chicago as publisher of the Sun-Times and boss of Hollinger's Chicago Group. He set the tone, and when he left it wasn't missed.
"David Radler had a very dark view of human nature," says a Hollinger source. "He truly believed the only way to motivate his sales force was by greed and fear. He truly believed the best way to get results on the revenue side was to allow for the sales staffs of his various properties to fight each other. David came to the conclusion 'These people are too greedy and too fucked up. The only thing they can agree on is to screw me. So let them compete.'"
On the labor-management side, Radler's views were just as dark. He loathed unions. If a union was weak--and the guild unit at Pioneer, which is an open shop, was weaker than most--he'd walk over it. His man at Pioneer was publisher Larry Green, and though Green didn't sit in on negotiations, he controlled them. The negotiators "might as well have been cardboard cutouts," says Stiefel. "They had no power to deal whatsoever."
The talks went nowhere. Guild members took to picketing Green's home and distributing stamped postcards for advertisers to mail to Green asking him to treat the union fairly. Those tactics made negotiations "a lot more personal than I'd like," says Ted Rilea, Hollinger's vice president for labor relations in the Chicago Group. "That makes it awfully hard for me when it's going in that direction."
Last November, Radler resigned as Hollinger lawsuits started flying. A defendant in one suit, the Hollinger board is the plaintiff in another, suing to recover more than $200 million it claims Black, Radler, and other defendants improperly took from the company. Two reclusive but fabulously rich British twins, Frederick and David Barclay, have emerged from nowhere to make a run at the company. The board is plotting to stop them. It wants to dispose of Hollinger assets as it pleases.
Stiefel has a theory. She thinks management finally made concessions because Hollinger is so completely up for grabs. Will the Chicago Group even be a group in six months, or will it have been sold off piecemeal? If it's still intact, who will own it? Hollinger? If Hollinger owns it, who will own Hollinger? Everything Hollinger owns is in play, so management needs to make everything alluring. "In that atmosphere," Stiefel reasons, "having an open contract and a hostile labor atmosphere would not cut in your favor."
"It's not a bad thought," replies John Cruickshank, "but it didn't factor in."
Cruickshank, who used to be vice president for editorial at the Sun-Times, took over from Radler as the paper's publisher and as head of the Chicago Group. Cruickshank e-mailed everyone in the organization. "There's no reason for us to let our dismay over recent disclosures hurt our confidence in ourselves. We've all worked long and hard creating a lean, efficient business," he wrote. "Our last leader focussed on slashing spending. My priorities will be to grow advertising revenue and quality circulation while maintaining reasonable cost controls. Creativity and teamwork across the Chicago Group will be the keys to our success."
The grace notes he struck in this December 1 memo turned out to be more than rhetorical. The next time the guild negotiated with Pioneer management, the company made a significant concession by agreeing to continue withholding union dues from paychecks. I asked Rilea at the time if Pioneer would have been as cooperative under Radler. "I don't know. My best guess is, probably not," he said. "John was involved. Larry Green reports to him. Cruickshank's philosophy is clearly somewhat different from David Radler's. He's a lot more open. He's interested in hearing what they have to say. He reached out to some extent."
Despite that concession, the bargaining promptly moved backward. The guild's bargaining team said it would submit the latest offer to the membership, and the company's negotiators got the idea that they and the guild had finally come to terms. They hadn't. The four guild negotiators presented the offer to the membership without a formal recommendation, and three of them said at a January 4 meeting that the members should accept the deal only if they were too beaten down to fight for more. The contract was rejected 24 to 12, and the membership authorized their negotiating team to call a strike.
The next editions of the Pioneer Press weeklies carried a story by executive editor Paul Sassone reporting that the guild had "rejected a tentative agreement it proposed last week during federal mediation and authorized a strike." Green was given three times as much space to mourn this "disappointing" development as Stiefel got to speak for the guild. She fired off a letter calling Sassone's article "one-sided," "biased," and "ludicrous," but it wasn't printed.
Yet the negotiations stayed on the rails. "They had rejected whatever it was," says Rilea, "and we had to put the egg back together as best we could. Things weren't going to get better until we got back to the table and started talking again."
On January 26, as the two negotiating teams met with the federal mediator, Green was taking Cruickshank on a tour of the Pioneer Press offices in Glenview. Green pointed out Stiefel's desk when they passed it, and Cruickshank went by the big "Integrity Died Here 8-27-03" sign she'd posted last summer on the guild bulletin board. It was a reference to the day arts and entertainment editor Virginia Gerst resigned after being ordered to run a gushing review of a restaurant that had been an advertiser.
As usual, Rilea talked to Green on the phone during breaks in the negotiations, but this time Green had been talking to Cruickshank. Management made another major concession: it agreed that the 2 percent pay raises it was offering would be retroactive to June 1, 2002. The guild then gave some ground on the medical benefits package. And they had a deal.
"I was involved," says Cruickshank. "I joined the advisers. But this was Ted Rilea. He's a lovely, lovely guy. I endorsed the direction he wanted to go in."
Would you have gotten there under Radler? I ask Rilea.
"I don't think so," he says.
Cruickshank continues, "What we did was we tried to listen to what people needed and tried to respond, and we tried to get agreement on some of the things we needed. David and Ted got lots of agreements--it's not like we ripped up contracts everywhere. But the attitude is different. I don't have some of the very strong antiunion feelings David did. I'm just not reflexively antiunion. And so when Larry Green and Ted and I talked about where we wanted to go with the contract, there wasn't any of that in the way. That made things a little bit easier. There was a reflex here that sometimes made it more difficult."
Stiefel says ruefully, "I had a great picket sign I never got to use--'Conrad's servants got our raise.'"
Because Radler squeezed the Chicago Group until the pips squeaked, and because the economy seems to be coming back, Cruickshank finds himself in the financial position to be a nice guy and an enlightened boss. He appreciates this. "We're not going to let our foot off the brake in any area," he says. "Production costs are not going to go up. Distribution costs are not going to go up. But we know we need continuing investments in editorial, marketing, and sales. We're talking about working collaboratively and thinking about growth, rather than just reducing costs."
"John derives no sense of mission out of being perceived to be a tough guy. David felt it was important to the role," says the Hollinger source quoted earlier. "John's very thoughtful, very, very intelligent. The tone John is setting is that the organization is not going to operate on the principles of fear and division. The question is, how will employees feel when they don't get as much as they want out of John Cruickshank? There's a long history at the Sun-Times where perfectly decent human beings in management were chewed up because they weren't tough enough."
The problem that every Sun-Times publisher has to confront is that it's a number-two paper. Unlike monopoly papers in smaller cities, it can't charge whatever it pleases. The market would promptly blow it off. The Chicago Group made money for Black and Radler (if not for the lesser Hollinger shareholders, who finally mutinied), just not at the spectacular levels Wall Street expects of media companies. Foreigners like Black and Radler (both from Canada) and the Barclays seem to be much sharper than Americans at recognizing how much money is still lying on the table.
Needless to say, with Black and Radler no longer controlling the gravy bowl, the rank and file has taken to thinking that Hollinger could now ladle some of the gravy onto their plates. "In just about every negotiation that's the first thing I have to deal with," says Rilea. "Some union members have asked the membership to try to come back in and reopen talks. That's not going to happen."
Cruickshank thinks he can find a few more dollars to invest in quality, but he understands that the idea of a Hollinger windfall reaching the Chicago Group is delusional. The shareholders want the profits for themselves. "When you look at what happened to the shares of this company relative to other big media companies in the last few years, the performance of Hollinger International has until very recently been very poor," Cruickshank says. "This is for the most part a battle between shareholders. This is money that wouldn't have washed into the newsroom or marketing department."
When it came to divvying up the spoils, Black and Radler barely deigned to acknowledge that they weren't running a private company. The other shareholders now want theirs. If the two sides agree on anything, it's that the idea of diverting the investors' rewards to the hired help is absurd.
And that's why we have unions.
What's on Your Nipple?
8 The Sun-Times ran a helpful photo of Janet Jackson's right breast Monday so that readers would have a clear idea of what it was the paper disapproved of. Accompanying the photo was Jim DeRogatis's review of Super Bowl entertainment; he decried "the incident."
The Tribune chose a photo taken as "Justin Timberlake prepares to tear off part of Janet Jackson's costume." By refusing to show the unshowable, the Tribune made its own powerful statement. In an accompanying "sports media" column, Ed Sherman lamented the entertainers' "lack of discretion."
Each paper in its own way declared its distaste for the high point of the Super Bowl halftime show. Where journalists diverged was on the important question of what exactly the aghast American public had been looking at. DeRogatis called it a "pasty," Sherman a "tassel." The lack of danglingness evident in the Sun-Times photo argued against "tassel," the lack of incidentalness against "pasty." The New York Times merely reported that "the body part [Jackson fans] were eager to see was obscured behind a silver star."
On Tuesday, as the big story built, there was still no consensus. In his front-page story in the Tribune Sherman referred to a "sun-shaped 'nipple shield.'" The Tribune editorial, which yearned for the bygone Super Bowl era of college marching bands, preferred to call it a "metal decoration."
The discussion in the arts section of the New York Times favored "sunburst-shaped nipple broach," and that paper resisted the temptation to editorialize. Not the Sun-Times. Capitalizing on a readership with a precise knowledge of the iniquity that had been perpetrated, it laced its editorial with reproachful phrases such as "attention-grabbing sexual theater," "sad reminder," and "gratuitously shocking moments."
In other parts of the paper, Jay Mariotti reflected on Jackson's "solar nipple medallion" and Richard Roeper on her "decorative 'nipple shield.'" Mariotti and Roeper both appeared in their usual places, but in addition the Tuesday Sun-Times offered two facing pages of blanket Jackson-Timberlake coverage, and here Paige Wiser weighed in on "that metal nipple cozy" Jackson was wearing and TV critic Phil Rosenthal on her "sunburst jewelry."
Confusion was dispelled by investigative reporter Lucio Guerrero, who told us it wasn't a "pastie" (the Sun-Times stylebook needs to make the hard choice between "pasty" and "pastie") but indeed a "nipple shield." Guerrero said shields are favored by women with pierced nipples but somewhat out of fashion, and he was pretty sure the halftime show would change that.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.