Commentary/Interview: Boston Globe Union Negotiations — Two Years On, More 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.
Two years on and there is still no contract between the management of the Boston Globe and the Boston Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the newspaper’s editorial employees as well as many on the business side. Why? As I wrote in my commentary on November 19, 2019, “there’s 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.”
The destructive scheme continues apace. The throttling is symptomatic of hypocritical big media in the Trump era and beyond. Editorials decry growing income disparity while the paper’s management quietly goes about furthering the 1 percent’s goal of crushing unions and undervaluing workers. (In the case of the Globe, Jones Day, a law firm that has long represented the Trump campaign, is in charge of the garroting.) What’s the Globe‘s endgame? It may be about hiking up profits for the fat cats … when the end comes. Globe owners John and Linda Henry could be positioning themselves for maximum return if (or is that when?) they sell the paper. That, and other worrisome scenarios, are suggested by Don Seiffert’s excellent recent Boston Business Journal article on the current stalemate as well as some recent examples of corporate arrogance. I recommend that anyone who cares about the future of professional journalism in Boston read it — and try not to weep.
Rather than dissolve in tears, turn to action. The BNG has kept a low profile over the past two years, wary of calling out their big-foot employer, who can count on the servility of local mainstream media enablers (their brands are opportunistically intertwined). Still, according to Seiffert, “two years in, the standoff at New England’s largest media organization promises to get even more visible in coming months, as the Boston Newspaper Guild promises to start bringing its concerns about how the changes sought by the Globe will affect the paper directly to readers.” Bring it on BNG! I call on the greater media in the city — from WBUR and WGBH to the Daily Dig — to report on the complaints of the besieged union, particularly when they point to the inevitable: that the Globe‘s draconian measures are lowering the range and quality of its coverage. Needless to say, Jones Day’s triumph will be a testament to the enduring spirit of Trump.
On a personal note, as an arts editor, I would love to see the downturn in the resources in the Globe’s arts coverage reversed. We need the paper’s shrinking reporting and analysis of arts and culture expanded. Speaking of the staff, when I spoke in November 2019 to 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) was bearing fruit: 12 people in the newsroom had given notice or left since the negotiations began. Five of them were women of color, including Cramer, who left to work for the New York Times.
I emailed questions about how negotiations were going, essentially what I asked in my earlier piece, to BNG member Scott Steeves, who works for Publication Design & Layout at Boston Globe Media. He suggests that, as the Globe fights (its workers) to become “nimbler,” staff attrition has continued. His responses are below:
Arts Fuse: In December 2019, Globe writer Jon Garelick posted, on Facebook, the initial proposal to the union 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.
It has been well over a year since then. Has anything changed? How are negotiations going? What are the major stumbling blocks?
Scott Steeves: Globe management has maintained positions on several of these topics that are deeply concerning to our members. These include the weakening of seniority, the reduction of severance pay, and reduced rights to grieve disciplinary actions. One that continues to puzzle us is the company’s reluctance to make sure that we would retain our contractual protections if the Globe is sold. We haven’t gotten a clear answer from John and Linda Henry about why this is so important to them, but such a provision could make it easier to sell the Globe to an owner who does not respect the work force here. We are encouraged, however, by the progress we’ve been able to make at the bargaining table around overtime. We’re hopeful we can deliver a positive result for our members on that measure.
AF: The law firm Jones Day has a “union-busting” reputation, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Is it living up to its 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?
Steeves: It remains deeply puzzling to us why the company has spent so much money trying to weaken the union that represents so many of its workers after a long period of smooth labor relations at the Globe. Especially because Jones Day, which has deep ties to Donald Trump, would seem to have values that run counter to the professed ideals that led John and Linda Henry to buy the Globe and attach its brand to their family name.
Many of the protections being threatened by the approach would not cost the company anything, so long as their managers make effective staffing decisions and take rational disciplinary measures when they are required. But taken together, the changes they have proposed would remove many of the hard-won protections that keep the Globe’s most experienced journalists, along with other valuable staffers, on the job.
AF: How have the prolonged negotiations affected the morale of the writers and workers in the union? How many writers have left the paper — and how many have been replaced? How many people of color? And at what salary level?
Steeves: Our members have been patiently waiting for management to come to its senses. Our negotiating team and Guild leadership have been in constant communication with the people in the union to make sure they understand that we’re up against a management team that has hired one of the most aggressive anti-union law firms in the country.
But the Globe has some great talent, and others in the industry know it. The protracted negotiations have not made retention any easier. People have been working without even a cost of living adjustment since the last contract expired two years ago, and the company still hasn’t come to the table with a proposal to make that right. Add to that the uncertainty surrounding job security and the lingering question of whether the Henrys might consider a sale, and it’s not hard to see why some members have been looking elsewhere.
AF: In a December 19, 2019, 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. Why do you think he is continuing to take such a hard line?
Steeves: They say they need to have a nimbler organization. If that’s the case, they should spend more time in the newsroom, or our advertising department, or any other division where our members have good relations with their supervisors and can work through scheduling or other challenges collaboratively. We don’t know the Henrys’ intention, but if they intended to shop the business around, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for them to be free of a union contract that would prevent a buyer from abusing the Globe’s valued workers.
AF: Have your priorities as a union remained the same? In what ways would your proposals lead to an improved Boston Globe?
Steeves: We have never wavered in our commitment to protecting our members’ rights and ensuring that the Globe will always be a place where good journalism comes first.
AF: How has the city’s media (WBUR, WGBH, Boston Business Journal) covered this prolonged impasse between the Globe‘s union and its ownership? What could the media do to help settle the negotiations in a way that would be fair to the writers?
Steeves: They can continue to tell our story. A vibrant Globe with a healthy, happy workforce is a major asset to the region in terms of accountability, public health, safety, and economic growth.
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.