Globe in the Balance: The Holdout
For Dan Totten, bellicose boss of the biggest labor group, the battle is far from over.
Dan Totten could be forgiven for slouching, for looking like a beaten man. But instead he leans forward in his conference room chair at the Boston Newspaper Guild’s Quincy office, crisply attired in a pink shirt and navy blazer, his silver hair neatly parted, as if fresh from the shower. Tall and wide, with round cheeks and ample jowls, he cuts the figure of an old-time union boss. His dropped r’s, courtesy of his Mattapan boyhood, add to the effect.
“What’s been put before us is completely unacceptable,” he says. “And I think people are ready, willing, and able to do something on that matter.”
For more than a month, Totten had been battling the Boston Globe‘s owner, the New York Times Company, over a plan to cut $10 million from his union’s contract and thereby stave off its threat to close down the broadsheet (the Times Company had demanded another $10 million from the Globe‘s 12 smaller unions). The night before, he laid out the disappointing fruit of his efforts for his 700 members. They could vote, he explained, to approve a contract offer from the Times Companyâ€”an offer that would slash their pay by 10 percent, jack up their healthcare costs, ratchet down the company’s retirement contributions, and eliminate lifetime job guarantees for the roughly 190 who had them (a group that includes Totten himself, and for which the offer provides a $33,000 payout to anyone who is axed). Or, when they take up the proposal on June 8, the members could shoot it down, sending Totten into a second round of bargaining with the hope that he might come back with something better. And the very justified fear that he might come back with something much worse.
On this morning, that risk doesn’t faze the union boss, who badly wants another shot at negotiating with the Times Company. “If we could get back to the table, I hope they could see that it was just an unacceptable proposal,” he says. “I know they can do better, they should do better, they have an obligation to do better.” The bravado is stunning for a man who’s spent recent weeks being pummeled by both the Times Company and factions of his own union. But Totten, an ad salesman by trade and a labor stalwart by blood, does not lack for confidenceâ€”a quality that could prove either a great virtue or a huge liability for the guild. Should his members vote to send him back into the ring with management, he could very well emerge as the hard-spined hero who had the gall to stare down the Gray Lady. Of course, if he fails, he’ll be branded the foolhardy union hack who hastened the end of the Boston Globe as we know it.
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 everâ€”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.
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 piecesâ€”ones that editors worry might leak out of the buildingâ€”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 advertisingâ€”more fearful of having their positions outsourced or rendered obsolete by technologyâ€”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.”
Though Totten admits “it would be hard for some of my colleagues to believe,” he originally had hoped to become a reporter when he came to the Globe. In 1980, as a student at Boston State College, he applied for an editorial internship, only to be bumped into advertising. The business hooked him, and he left college to continue on at the newspaper (later finishing his degree and picking up an M.B.A. from Anna Maria College in Paxton). Over a 25-year career, he worked a variety of sales jobs, most recently selling ads for the travel section.
Totten first got active in the union in 2002, and it was a natural fit. His father was a member of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association for more than 35 years, his sister was a union representative for the Boston school system, and his grandmother had been a steward for the hotel and telephone workers union “back in a time,” Totten says, “when it wasn’t very popular or easy for a woman to hold such a position.” When guild president Steve Richards stepped down in 2005, citing the strain of the thankless job on his family life, Totten decided to run for the presidency; since nobody else did, he won easily.
Totten ran uncontested again in 2007. Despite drawing the ire of his newsroom colleagues, he’s found plenty of backers who consider him perfect for the job. “I think Dan’s tough,” says Richards. “He’s strong in his opinions and he’s not a bashful, retiring type. He’s going to fight hard for what he believes in.”
For years, newsroom staffers have largely opted out of union affairs. Though they make up 40 percent of the membership, they have just one delegate on the eight-member executive committee. Reporters offer various explanations for their lack of involvement, which seem to boil down to having neither the time nor the interest. (Tellingly, one Globe scribe said all he knew of the union is “they take $20 out of my check.”) After finally tuning in to how their guild president was conducting himself, they found little to like. Many Globe journalists, trained to see nuance in the topics they cover, are philosophically uneasy with Totten’s old-school, line-in-the-sand posture. “Bellicose union sentiment and anticorporate ranting don’t sit well with us,” says one. “This is the 21st century, and these guys are talking like it’s Samuel Gompers Day.”
To those already in line behind Totten, the newsroom’s sudden activism and demands to be heard were off-putting. “Editorial, they don’t really get their hands dirty with this kind of stuff,” says one ad salesman. “[They say,] ‘Gee, are we fully represented?’ But when the elections were taking place, nobody was interested.”
Guild vice president Scott Steeves goes further. New to the negotiating process, the newsroom members failed to see the job guarantees as the valuable bargaining chips they are, he says. There was a reason the union’s playbook wasn’t e-mailed to members. “It’s posturing a lot of the time, and the membership doesn’t understand that. And because they’re news people, because they’re reporters, they want every little detail and every little fact,” Steeves says. “And it hurts negotiations if we give our game plan away to them because then, next thing you know, you see it in the Herald, it’s online, it’s all over the place.
“We were always willing to discuss everything [with the Times Company], but we didn’t want to say that to start off negotiations…I absolutely think [the newsroom complaints] weakened our position because the company knew that there was a big group of non-job-guaranteed people who were pressuring the negotiating team to give up the job guarantees without knowing how the process works.”
What Steeves and Totten needed, then, was their membership’s blind faithâ€”a trust that they were getting the job done behind closed doors. Considering the newsroom’s unfamiliarity with the union, and the union’s inability to communicate with its members, it’s little wonder they did not receive it. Totten says he understands he made some mistakes and is working to correct them. A more unified guild, he believes, will give him a better bargaining position. But should the negotiations restart, his tenor is one thing that won’t change. Being of the old breed, he’s a puncher, not a conciliator. “I am who I am,” he says. “I don’t think a lighter tone would have accomplished anything. I think you need to press on behalf of the people who might not understand strategies.”
Despite feeling that dissenting members had weakened their hand, Totten and Steeves strode into the negotiations on April 14 committed to playing the guarantees for all they were worth. Across the table sat Gregory Thornton, the Globe‘s labor czar; Bernard Plum, the Times Company lawyer sent up from New York; and three other Globe higher-ups. During past labor negotiations, Thornton had been management’s point man. But as union leaders settled into the basement conference room of the Sacred Heart school in Weymouth, where a friendly labor group rents space, they soon realized that Plum would be the Times Company’s lead player. This time, New York, not Boston, was calling the shots.
A labor specialist from the high-powered firm Proskauer Rose, Plum showed little emotion at the bargaining table. “He’s got a straightforward, no-nonsense style,” Steeves says. “Here it is, this is what it is. No massaging it at all. It’s the bottom line, that’s what we need, we’re gonna get it, period.” Determined to remain a single, faceless entity throughout the negotiations, Plum and his cohorts took pains to avoid individual media attention. They entered and exited the talks through a back door, and shooed away photographers when they were spotted.
Totten presented a contrast in style. “Dan’s more passionate,” says Steeves. “He’s always saying, you know, ‘This is wrong, you gotta stand up for people, you can’t just destroy people’s lives like this, people’s retirement, people’s 401(k). How are people supposed to send their kids to school and pay their mortgage?'”
As the Times Company’s May 1 deadline approached, the pace of negotiations intensified. The closer it got, the more the threat to shutter the paper seemed like just bluster, a leverage tactic. When the date came and went without a settlement, it became clear that Totten had called the Times Company’s bluff. “It was calculated; it was part of our strategy,” Totten says now. From the beginning, he was of the belief that “it doesn’t benefit the Sulzbergers to close [the paper].” Of course, that hadn’t stopped Totten from using the threat to galvanize all the public support he could, launching a campaignâ€”which included radio ads and an April 24 “Save the Globe” rally at Faneuil Hallâ€”to vilify the New York overlords.
Totten may have gotten his opponents to blink when it came to shutting
down the paper, but the Times Company had another trump cardâ€”one that it still holds today. If Plum and his bosses in New York concluded that the talks had broken down, they could declare an impasse, a legal step that would allow the Times Company to impose its final contract offer, which they indicated would include a devastating 23 percent wage cut. Such a deep cut would easily get the Times Company to its $10 million targetâ€”while of course irreparably demoralizing its Globe employees in the process. But because the management negotiators were keeping such a good poker face, Totten had no way of knowing whether that fact much mattered to the Times Company.
With the 23 percent cut now in play, the talks dragged late into the night of May 5. The only thing the parties could agree on, it appeared, was Chinese food: At 9:30 a box of it (containing separate bags for union and management) was hauled in. The two sides remained holed up in the negotiating room until 12:45 a.m., when Totten began conducting occasional sidebars in the hallway. For most of these, he leaned coolly against the wall. But at 3 a.m., when he stepped into the hall with Thornton, his demeanor had changed. Totten paced back and forth. Swinging out his left fist, he banged the wall. He paced some more. The two were out of earshot, but it was apparent that an unwelcome conclusion was close at hand.
Thirty minutes later, Totten trudged up a small staircase to greet reporters waiting for him on a landing. He looked exhausted, the news cameras’ lights revealing glazed, watery eyes. Taking no questions and divulging few details, he explained that he had a proposal to put before his members. There would be no impasseâ€”not tonight, anyway. People assumed a deal had been struck and the Globe saved. They were wrong.
If it were up to him, Dan Totten would still be locked in that Weymouth basement, hammering away. It took a heated argument with Steeves that night, in fact, to convince him to fold his hand and bring the Times Company’s offer to the union members.
Back in the conference room in the guild’s Quincy office, he’s still seething. “So the New York Times’ position is, Accept this, or take a 23 percent wage cut. Which, by the way, went from 22 and a quarter percent to 23 percent,” he says. “That was a very hostile act, just mean-spirited, in and of itself.”
While Totten blames the onerous terms on Times Company vindictiveness, some of his own members wonder if much of the fault doesn’t rest with Totten himself, as architect of a cutthroat strategy. In this take, his stubbornness and guns-blazing style drove the Times Company toward draconian measures. “I think with different leadership we could have had a better deal,” says one Globe reporter. “The tenor of the negotiations were unnecessarily ugly, and I think that some of the bad blood and kind of rote hostility is counterproductive.”
That’s impossible to know, but it’s hard to believe things could have turned out much worse for the guild. After all, in the end the Times Company got everything it wanted.
Well, almost everything. One consequence of the proposal was that it was so loathed by guild members that even those who resent Totten shifted their anger toward the Times Company. If the New Yorkers had hoped to break the guild, that ambition failed. Instead, pulled together in an unlikely moment of unity, some members are talking of voting down the proposal and sending Totten once more back into the negotiation roomâ€”even despite the Times Company’s promise to enact the 23 percent wage cut if they do. It’s possible, after all, that such a warning is merely another paper tiger, much like the threat to close the Globe itself. It’s possible that the Times Company, anxious to be done with the guild, could sweeten its deal, that Totten could even convince it to pay more than $33,000 a head to get rid of those lifetime job guarantees. Of course, it’s also possible such a gamble could backfire. This time, the Times Company could make good on the 23 percent wage cut, while those severance packages shrink or disappear.
The magnitude of the June 8 vote is not lost on Totten. Nothing less than the future of the Boston Globe will be at stake. “This,” he says of his members, “is the most important vote they will ever cast in their lives.”
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/05/globe-in-the-balance-holdout/