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 Company—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 confidence—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 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.
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.”