Commentary/Interview: Boston Globe Union Negotiations — Anger and Resistance
By Bill Marx
Those who value serious journalism (as well as the rights of journalists) should be quite worried about just how lethally Boston Globe management is attempting to undercut the newspaper’s union.
If, as the New York Times advertisements for itself tirelessly proclaim, “The Truth Is Worth It,” then wouldn’t it make sense to recognize the worth of those who are hunting for, and writing, the truth?
Apparently not to the Boston Globe, whose contract proposals during its ongoing negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the Globe’s editorial employees and many on the business side as well, are on the draconian side — to the point of gutting the contract. This, despite the fact the publisher John Henry says the newspaper is now in the black. But there is always more money to be made by squeezing union workers, taking away protections, making outsourcing easier, eliminating overtime, slashing pay, etc. (Hostility to unions is a trait shared by corporateers across the ideological spectrum — right, left, and center.) The upshot of the spiked sledgehammer — wielded for the Globe by the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day — will be to drive away talented writers and weaken the quality of the newspaper’s product. And that could well be part of the plan. What’s going on here is symptomatic of the Trump era — the brand is buffed up while the substance behind it is hollowed out.
Those who value serious journalism (as well as the rights of journalists) should be quite worried about what is happening. And should speak up, given what is at stake. I wanted an update on the negotiations, so sent some questions to reporter Maria Cramer, the former vice president of the Guild. Globe management’s campaign to whittle down the staff (no doubt to bring in lower paid newbies, ripe for further exploitation) is bearing fruit: 12 people in the newsroom have given notice or left since the negotiations began. Five of them are women of color, including Cramer, who is leaving to work for The New York Times.
Arts Fuse: Boston Globe writer Jon Garelick posted, on Facebook, the initial proposal to the union on December 8 from the Boston Globe, represented by Trish Dunn of the law firm Jones Day. The list included the following “problematic” asks.
1) Give the company the ability to outsource our jobs.
2) Eliminate overtime for most members.
3) Strip us of seniority in layoffs.
4) Remove wage steps that guarantee annual pay increases for employees who otherwise would receive no raises unless their managers agreed to them.
5) Take away our ability to defend ourselves against abuses.
6) Take away our ability to fight back if the company denies an employee’s claim of harassment against a supervisor.
7) Remove the clause in our current contract that would require any future owner from honoring the bargaining agreement.
8) Weaken, if not cut entirely, language in our contract that calls on the Globe to recruit and promote women and minorities.
9) Slash our severance.
Has anything changed since then? How are negotiations going?
Maria Cramer: With the exception of 6 and 8, not much else has changed. Our members have done an exceptional job of showing their anger and resistance to these attempts to gut our current contract, and I credit their support for management’s decision not to take away our ability to grieve and arbitrate over harassment and for the improvements to our current language on the recruiting and promotion of women and minorities.
Unfortunately, the company is still trying to do away with the bedrock rights you listed. At our most recent negotiation, they cited outsourcing as necessary to “free up” money for more hires. To us, that just sounds like replacing veteran, experienced employees with cheaper, less qualified workers who can be exploited. Their efforts are shortsighted and will only weaken the newsroom and the company as a whole, not strengthen it.
AF: In a December 19 response to Dan Kennedy of WGBH, Boston Globe owner John Henry said that after a number of years in the red, the Globe was now operating in the black. Kennedy pointed out that “it doesn’t seem like a good look to crack down on the union at a time when its members’ sacrifices have helped Henry balance the books.” Makes sense to me — why do you think Henry is taking such a hard line?
Cramer: I cannot speculate as to why management has decided to take this line against its own employees. The Guild thought we were rowing together toward the same goal: a successful company where employees and management collaborate to create great journalism. The attempts by the company to gut our contract have torpedoed what the Guild thought was a team effort to keep the Globe strong. The Guild has been told at the table that management needs to make these changes in order to create a “flexible and nimble” work environment. That’s pretty much the only explanation we have gotten for why the company feels destroying the current contract is necessary.
We’ve been presented no data that connects the cuts they want to make to actual savings, though we’ve asked for it repeatedly. We’ve only been given platitudes.
AF: The law firm Jones Day has a “union-busting” reputation, at least according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Are they living up to their reputation? Is this an attempt to cut the union down to nothing? What do you make of the proposals to undermine minority recruitment and a worker’s power to assert claims of harassment?
Cramer: The CJR article is one of the most accurate articles I’ve ever read. The writer of that story was 100 percent on point. Jones Day’s attorneys would say they are not trying to whittle down the union to oblivion. We have their proposals in hand to refute their claims.
As for the proposals to get rid of language on harassment and minority recruitment, the company has apparently reconsidered. Initially, the company had slashed language on both. The language has been reinserted and in some cases strengthened. Our members were very vocal about their unhappiness over the eradication of those protections. We are pleased the company appears to have listened. Hopefully, they listen to their own employees and mid-level managers on the other shortsighted proposals they have made.
AF: What is the union looking for in this contract? What are your priorities? In what ways would your proposals lead to an improved Boston Globe?
Cramer: Very simply, the Guild wants its members to be paid better, to have a better 401k plan, to have some of the transportation costs that were incurred for many members as a result from our move from Dorchester to State Street ameliorated, and to have better work from home options. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Google, Facebook, and other companies that compete for our staff compensate their employees fairly. Those are successful companies that have done well in no small part because they have been able to recruit and retain talented people who feel valued and therefore produce great work.
If the Globe wants to retain the incredible talent it has and attract more, it needs to recognize that slashing rights and failing to compensate people well will only lead to more departures and rancor. In a nutshell, you get what you pay for.
AF: Aside from the December 19 piece by Dan Kennedy, there has been little in the media about the negotiations and what they mean for the future of the Boston Globe. Even though WBUR, WGBH, and other major news organizations depend on the reporting in the newspaper. Why do you think that is? What kind of coverage would be of help to settle the negotiations in a way that is fair to the writers?
Cramer: Dan Kennedy is not the only Boston writer to look at what’s happening at the Globe. Don Sieffert at the Boston Business Journal has done great work examining what’s been happening at the table and the effects its having on morale. Adam Reilly and Emily Rooney have talked about it on Beat the Press. Commonwealth magazine has written about our negotiations. But yes, you make a good point. There needs to be more written about this very important issue, including in the Globe’s own pages. This is an unprecedented assault on our rights and it is extremely newsworthy. I hope we can get more coverage from organizations that often cite our work and follow the coverage of our journalists.
AF: As an arts editor, I am particularly interested in what I see as the alarming shrinkage in the Boston Globe‘s arts coverage. Is there any way a new contract might lead to expanding the newspaper’s reporting and analysis of arts and culture?
Cramer: If the new contract includes better pay and 401k matches in addition to the other improvements the Guild is seeking and if the company backs off the draconian cuts it wants to make, I would hope a new contract would have a positive effect on our arts coverage. We have a wonderful arts department with talented writers like Ty Burr, Murray Whyte, Zoe Madonna, Mark Feeney, and Don Aucoin. But it would be great to have more people covering Boston’s vibrant cultural scene, music, local artists, you name it. This is a city that has thrived on great art, music, and culture. Great arts writers are curators. The city needs more of them and a fair contract would draw more of them.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.