Boston Globe Union Weighs High-Stakes Vote Monday

Union members in one of the nation’s most prestigious newsrooms face a high-stakes decision Monday: accept sharp cuts in pay and benefits or reject the plan that the paper’s owners say is necessary to its survival.

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If the 700 or so Boston Newspaper Guild members at The Boston Globe reject the proposal — as union leaders have signaled they should — it would be an aggressive play of brinksmanship aimed at forcing the owner, the New York Times Co., back to negotiations.

The struggle crystallizes the struggles in the news business these days — the challenges unions face in preserving their members’ compensation amid historic turmoil, the difficulty in getting even publicly traded companies to reveal financial details, the risk of a scorched-earth labor battle that would shut down the Globe presses after 137 years.

“I believe there are powerful incentives for the Times Co. management to come to its senses, put away the gun they have held to our heads, and return to the table to reach a quick, equitable settlement that we all can live with and that will help The Boston Globe to survive,” longtime Globe reporter and Guild member Brian Mooney said in an e-mail.

Union President Daniel Totten has said he believes the union could reach a better deal than the one before members. Regardless of the outcome Monday, he expects more layoffs.

The New York Times Co. has said negotiations are over. If the Guild turns down the package, which includes a 10 percent pay cut for most members (including an annual furlough), elimination of job guarantees and an extensive rollback in benefits, the company has said it will impose a 23 percent pay cut instead. Either method will save the company $10 million, which is what the company seeks from the Guild. (The Times Co. has sought another $10 million from other unions at the Globe.)

The Guild has said it would respond to a 23 percent pay cut by filing a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing the company of bargaining in bad faith.

Such a move by the union would trigger a long legal review by the NLRB, one that would turn on key questions of whether the two sides truly tried to reach an agreement and if they are at an impasse, according to Boston College law professor Thomas Kohler. In the meantime, Guild members likely would see their pay cut by 23 percent and the Times Co. would have to deal with a festering labor battle.

If the union votes against the contract and the two sides follow through on what they have said they would do, here’s the most likely scenario, according to Kohler and information from both sides: Within a couple of days, the Times Co. would meet with the Guild to deliver its “last, best offer” — the 23 percent wage cut. The union would file its charge with the NLRB.
 
The union also probably would ask the NLRB to seek an injunction against The Times Co. to prevent it from imposing the pay cut. But courts are generally reluctant to grant such injunctions, Kohler said — and may be even more so, considering the obvious troubles of the Times Co. Without an injunction, Guild members would see their pay reduced immediately, and they wouldn’t get that money back unless the NLRB eventually ruled against the company.

The union’s complaint would spell out its case that the company had argued in bad faith and imposed its final offer unilaterally. Expect to see issues that the union has raised already [PDF], including: the company is squeezing the Guild for concessions while going easy on management and even increasing its benefits; the company used incorrect financial calculations during negotiations; and it rejected various union proposals that would have saved $10 million in other ways.

If the NLRB were to rule that the two sides are at an impasse, then the company’s final offer would stand, Kohler said. If not, the NLRB probably would order that the company refund wages and return to negotiations.

There are several stages to an NLRB review, and every decision can be appealed to federal court — and those rulings can be appealed as well. So while the Times Co. has been able to push the unions to act quickly so far, the pace would slacken dramatically.

“It can be a considerable period of time between an employer saying, ‘We’re at an impasse; I’m imposing my best and final offer,’ and finding out what the last decision-maker has to say about it,” Kohler said.

In the meantime the question would be: Which side can last longer?

Mooney acknowledged that Guild members would endure financial hardship during an NLRB review. “However, I believe time is not on the side of the Times,” he wrote in an e-mail. “No matter how long the NLRB case is pending, it is bad news for the Times Co. because even if the Times believes the Guild’s chances of prevailing are slim (and we think they are quite good), the risk to the company is enormous.”

Mooney argued that the Times would be unable to sell the Globe with a lingering labor dispute. “But most significantly, in the event the Times loses before the NLRB, it will unwind the agreements the company has already reached with other unions at the Globe,” Mooney wrote.

Globe spokesman Bob Powers did not respond directly to Mooney’s assertions. “We have said repeatedly that we need to achieve $10 million in savings from the Guild and we need to do so soon,” he said in an e-mail. “We hope the members of the Guild will vote to ratify the contract, just as the members of six other Globe unions did, so that we can continue to bring the Globe‘s high-quality journalism to our community.”

Kohler said he would not be surprised if this dispute ends as many labor negotiations do: at the last moment. “My guess is a no vote tomorrow [Monday] might cause some sort of last-minute, ‘Let’s talk one last time.’ We’ll see.”

Voting ends Monday at 8 p.m. EDT. Check back with Poynter Online Monday night for results.

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