The New York Times Co.'s baffling Globe strategy

The Times Co. actually seems intent on not getting to yes with Guild members
By ADAM REILLY  |  June 10, 2009

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It's no mystery why the New York Times Co. threatened, two months ago, to shutter the Boston Globe unless the paper's unions provided $20 million in concessions. The economy's in shambles. The Times has serious financial woes. The Globe is on pace to lose $135 million in 2008 and 2009 combined. And if the Times Co. is going to unload its Boston boondoggle — apparently, given a report in Wednesday's Globe, by soliciting bids in the next few weeks via Goldman Sachs — it needs to make the paper as attractive as possible to prospective buyers.

What is confusing, though, is the Times Co.'s counterproductive approach to negotiations. On Monday, the Boston Newspaper Guild — the paper's largest union, and the lone union yet to provide the requested concessions — rejected the Times Co.'s latest contract offer, paving the way for a protracted legal fight. Given the razor-thin margin of defeat (277 Guild members voted nay, 265 yea), a bit of artful suasion on the part of the Times Co. could have reversed the outcome — and hastened a sale.

Instead, the Times Co. actually seemed intent on not getting to yes. In the days after the closure threat was announced, for example, Times Co. management froze out the media rather than making their case through the press. Neither Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. nor president and CEO Janet Robinson could be bothered to travel to Boston to lobby for the requested concessions in person. And at a crucial point in negotiations with the Guild, management announced it had made a significant math error, yet refused to extend the stated deadline for negotiations — thereby exacerbating anti–New York animus and creating unity in the Guild's formerly fragmented ranks.

And now — as the Times Co. prepares to implement a threatened 23 percent pay cut on Guild members in the wake of Monday's "no" vote — there's a new mystery to ponder: why, exactly, is management taking a step that seems fraught with legal peril?

The problem, according to Angela Cornell, a labor-law expert at Cornell University, is that the impasse the Times Co. has to declare legally before imposing that 23 percent pay cut was actually reached on the offer the union rejected this week, which involved a de facto 10 percent pay cut and various benefit reductions. "It's that proposal that the Times Co. can lawfully implement," explains Cornell. "But management apparently has some intention, instead, of implementing the 23 percent pay cut next week. That's a concern, because it could violate the section of the National Labor Relations Act that deals with bargaining violations."

The Times Co. should be aware of this potential glitch — and maybe it is. After all, if the Guild obtains an injunction that keeps the Times Co. from following through on its threat next week, the Times Co. could use that development to take the paper into bankruptcy, arguing that the Guild simply won't let management obtain the savings it needs to keep the paper running. And the managerial latitude provided by bankruptcy could make it easier for the Times Co. to rid itself of the Globe once and for all.

Yes, that's an unpleasant scenario. But the alternative — that the Times Co. simply doesn't know what it's doing — may be just as bad.

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

  Topics: Media -- Dont Quote Me , Business, Jobs and Labor, Boston Globe,  More more >
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