Globe in the Balance: The Holdout
To most observers, the April threat from the Times Company seemed to come out of nowhere. In fact, it’d been set in motion a decade and a half earlier.
In 1993, while the Times Company was hammering out a deal to buy the Globe from the Taylor family for $1.1 billion, Totten’s predecessors were busy reworking their guild’s employment contract, ultimately bargaining for a clause guaranteeing that the 700 or so union employees hired before January 1992 would never be laid off. Over time, those job guarantees have been erroneously chalked up as an act of benevolence on the part of the Taylors, with the recipients inscribed in a sort of Book of Life. But in reality they represented a hard-fought victory. And almost as soon as they were won, they were forgotten. In those halcyon days of the early 1990s, when newspapers were still cash cows, employees had little fear of losing their jobs.
Of course, things changed quickly. Over the past decade, revenue and circulation have plummeted, and by the end of last year, with the economy imploding, reports surfaced that the Globe was losing a jaw-dropping $1 million per week. Its parent company was bleeding cash as well. In December the Times Company mortgaged its new headquarters in New York, and six weeks later borrowed millions at a murderously high interest rate from a Mexican telecom mogul to forestall bankruptcy.
Last June the Times Company approached the Globe unions to open cost-cutting talks, seeking up to a 10 percent wage cut. Responding for his guild, Totten rebuffed the request, offering instead some "generalized cost savings" proposals, which he now declines to detail. "They used the word ‘collaboration,’" he says. "It’s hollow…they don’t hear recommendations and proposals that we put forth." Or at any rate, they weren’t interested. (Times Company officials had little comment for this article other than to say, "All along, our desire has been to work with our unions.") The discussions about across-the-board cuts fizzled. This past March, with an eye toward trimming 50 jobs, the Times Company implemented its fifth round of buyouts at the Globe since 2001 and the first editorial layoffs in the paper’s history. The latest downsizing brought a newsroom staff that numbered 520 eight years ago down to 340. More than 700 jobs have been axed throughout the rest of the building.
Suddenly, the lifetime job guarantees were more valuable than ever—not just for the union members who had them, but also for the Times Company.
Desperate for cash and increasingly anxious to unburden itself of a newspaper projected to lose $85 million this year, the Times Company knew it had to eliminate those antiquated promises: They constrained immediate cost-saving efforts, as well as any more radical makeover a prospective buyer might want to pursue.
Once so seemingly benign, the guarantees were now something to declare war over. Unable to get Totten to voluntarily pursue negotiations, the Times Company pulled out a new, drastic tactic to bring him to the bargaining table.