Globe in the Balance: The Holdout
For Dan Totten, bellicose boss of the biggest labor group, the battle is far from over.
On that fateful Friday afternoon in April when word of the Times Company’s death threat first emerged, Globe reporter Scott Allen was sitting in the office of the Spotlight Team, the paper’s vaunted investigative unit. Rumors had rumbled through the newsroom all day, but “the idea that they would set a date to stop publishing after 137 years, that seemed far-fetched,” Allen says.
Early in the afternoon an officemate called up on his computer the lineup for the next day’s front page, revealing a story marked simply “Globe.” Ordinarily reporters can view the headlines and first paragraphs of all stories slated for A1, but for sensitive pieces—ones that editors worry might leak out of the building—the entries are more vague. As a Spotlight Team member, Allen was as aware of this protocol as anyone, considering his stories often receive that kind of lineup treatment.
By about 5 p.m., the “Globe” lineup entry was filled in, allowing Spotlight editor Thomas Farragher to see the lead. He printed it out and handed copies to Allen and a few other reporters. “We just sat there with our mouths wide open,” Allen says.
Along with the 12 other union heads, Totten had been given notice by the Times Company the previous day, and had committed to keeping the threat under wraps. But the newsroom didn’t know that, and anyway, now that word had leaked, there seemed no excuse for his inaction. As more reporters caught wind of the shocking news, they grew alarmed that they hadn’t yet heard anything from Totten. Frustrated, City Hall reporter Donovan Slack circulated a petition demanding an immediate meeting of the guild. Blasting out an e-mail to her editorial colleagues, she wrote that she was “starting to wonder about our union leadership and whether we are going in the right direction.”
If the reporters were quick to question Totten, it was because the union president had earned a reputation among his members for being less than forthcoming with information. After the Times Company had made its initial request for cuts last June, company executives, including chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr., traveled to Boston for a town hall meeting. During that meeting, a mailroom employee asked about a supposed 10 percent wage drop he’d heard about. Reporters were left slack-jawed. Despite knowing about the requested cuts for a week, Totten had never mentioned them to his members.
Indeed, Totten has long rankled guild members with his lack of interest in communicating much at all. “The union doesn’t seem capable of consistently reaching all of its own members by e-mail,” says one reporter. Notes another, “I had asked at least four times to get on the union listserv and hadn’t. And I think that’s the case with a number of reporters.”
Six days after he learned of the closure threat, Totten finally convened the union’s membership on the evening of Wednesday, April 8. He used the occasion to dig deeper into a hard-line stance he’d already staked out in comments to the media. The lifetime job guarantees, he declared, would not be given up under any circumstance.
With that, Totten cracked open an already festering split in the union. On one side were the many reporters eager to toss the job guarantees overboard if it meant saving the paper. What sense did it make to guard those guarantees, they wondered, if doing so caused the Globe to go out of business? On the other side, guild members who sell advertising—more fearful of having their positions outsourced or rendered obsolete by technology—tend to consider the protections as sacred contract provisions. “It was a beautiful issue to divide us,” says one writer.
With Totten’s position established, fretful reporters began to wonder if the union boss had their best interests at heart. Slack, for one, created a newsroom-wide e-mail list to ensure all were kept apprised of union activities. When Totten sent out a survey to poll members on bargaining priorities, she instructed her colleagues to copy their responses to environment reporter Beth Daley, a newsroom delegate to the guild, just to prevent anything from getting lost in the shuffle. Meanwhile, religion reporter Michael Paulson launched an invitation-only Facebook group to create a forum for staffers to discuss the issues at hand; it quickly grew to 120 members.
Whether in spaces virtual or real, Totten received few favorable reviews from the Globe‘s journalists. Many worried his stubbornness would jeopardize the paper, especially since he had put his foot down on the job guarantees before even considering the survey’s results.
“Sometimes [Totten] seems in over his head,” says one reporter, who, like several others, spoke on condition of anonymity. “His voice mail is always full. He often doesn’t respond to calls or e-mails. And he has a bad habit of insisting that opinions that are different from his are based on ignorance rather than actual disagreement.”
Another puts it more succinctly: “He’s not been effective. I don’t know if that’s because he’s stupid, inept, or just has different goals than the membership.”