Die another day

By ADAM REILLY  |  May 7, 2009

Obvious as that point sounds, it looked for a while like Guild head Dan Totten might not get it. While the Guild did provide the $10 million in concessions requested of it, union leadership had steadfastly refused to budge on the elimination of the lifetime-job guarantees held by roughly 190 of the Guild's 600-some members. Management, in turn, saw the elimination or substantial modification of those guarantees as absolutely essential if the paper wasn't going to be shuttered.

This conjured up a grimly absurd scenario: by insisting on the rights of a third of its members to perpetual employment, the Guild risked leaving all Globe workers unemployed — and, for good measure, depriving Bostonians of their paper of record.

What changed? Start with management's late-breaking, game-changing request for a whopping 23 percent pay cut by the Guild's members. (The message here: if you're not going to give up lifetime guarantees, we're really going to bring the pain.) Things were also nudged along when the two other unions whose members have held lifetime guarantees caved at least somewhat on that front.

When that happened, the Guild was under tremendous pressure to do the same — especially because this concession was far more painful for some other unions than it would be for the Guild. At the Boston Mailers Union, for example, all 145 full-time members have lifetime guarantees. (One hundred part-time members don't, and would be the first to go if layoffs hit.) But even though the shift from print to the Web threatens the mailers with obsolescence down the road, the mailers' leaders were willing, before their Guild counterparts, to rethink their lifetime-guarantee provision in order to keep the paper alive.

The Guild's own internal rules also loomed over Totten and his fellow Guild brass like a procedural Sword of Damocles. The bar for initiating a recall election of the union's leader(s) is relatively low: according to Article IX of the Guild's constitution and bylaws, the process can be triggered by a formal petition from just 20 percent of the union's members — i.e., about 120 people. Since about two-thirds of the Guild's members don't have lifetime guarantees, this wouldn't have been a difficult threshold to meet. And since the Times Co. seemed unwilling to actually close down the Globe until the 60-day waiting period mandated by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act (WARN) had elapsed, there would have been plenty of time — if necessary — for new, more flexible union leadership to be installed.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. And Totten and the other Guild higher-ups deserve a measure of credit.

Let the record show that the lifetime-job guarantees (which were formalized in 1994) actually represented a concession on the part of the Guild's members, who'd previously benefited from an even more expansive "no-layoff" clause that applied to all full-time employees. Let it show, too, that Totten and three other members of the Guild's executive committee have benefited from the guarantees in question.

But times have changed: given the decline of the newspaper business in general and the Globe in particular, what once looked like managerial decency is now tantamount to economic suicide. If the guarantees hadn't gone, the Globe apparently would have. Principle and self-interest notwithstanding, Totten & co. cared enough about their colleagues — and the paper — not to let that happen.

To read the "Don't Quote Me" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/medialog. Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly@phx.com.

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