New York Times union members ‘deeply divided’ on contract vote

New York Times union members are voting tomorrow on a new contract, and “the membership is deeply divided,” writes Times reporter Donald McNeil. He shares staffers’ comments from his email list.

A PROBABLE YES VOTE:

Two things seem clear.

1. Our negotiators did a heroic job in getting a much better deal than management wanted to come up with and deserve our praise and thanks for their incredibly hard work.

2. Said deal is still disappointing and perhaps insulting, and we’d all like a better one.

What’s not clear to me is whether there is any realistic hope of getting a better one, how that would come about, and whether it makes any sense to face the real and onerous risks of a strike, if it comes to that. I’m willing to listen, but unless I’m convinced a “no” vote would be more than a brave but likely fruitless and damaging statement of principle, I’m inclined to vote yes. Either way, sincere thanks to all who’ve posted yay and nay for their smart and helpful thoughts.

Peter Applebome

A NO VOTE:

Subject: Sacrifice

People – forgive me for the melodrama but I’m sitting in a car driving through the desert in Chad and I have some time to ruminate about this.

Anthony Shadid died while covering a story.

Joao Silva got his legs blown off on assignment.

Several local employees of the Baghdad buro were assassinated for the work they were doing for us.

Enough is enough. We all make HUGE sacrifices for this company. If there is enough cash in the system for Janet to walk away with millions, there is enough to pay us fairly.

By voting no, we send that message loud and clear.

Jeffrey Gettleman (filed on his Blackberry from the desert in Chad)

Read more arguments for and against contract ratification after the jump.

Jim Dwyer:

SUBJ Your Money, Your Life and Your Credibility

Colleagues

A few thoughts on the proposed contract and why I am voting against it. But please: Whatever your views, don’t sit out the vote, which will be taken on Monday in the bureaus and on Tuesday in Manhattan. If you’re out of town, on vacation, or working away from the office, our unit chair, Grant Glickson (grantg@att.blackberry.net) has promised to make sure your vote is counted. Get in touch with him.

Yay or nay, speak up — the legacy of apathy in the Guild, in my view, undermined our position in these talks; voting now will strengthen the next generation of negotiators.

On to the proposed contract.

1. Our negotiating committee brought back a deal far, far better than what the company believed could be bullied onto an an historically complacent newsroom. I am grateful to everyone on the committee for all they did on our behalf. I am especially thankful to Donald G. McNeil Jr., who roused me and many others before we slumbered through another labor negotiation.

The committee’s doggedness, backed up by an engaged and angry newsroom, won a package vastly improved over the company’s draconian demands.

2. Thanks to their work, the proposed contract is no longer toxic, as the company’s demands were until just a few weeks ago. Now it is merely nauseating. It would cut our compensation by every conceivable measure. As you read these figures, keep in mind that our exempt colleagues just received annual raises of 3%, as well as bonuses that ranged up to more than a third of salary.

So what’s being offered to us?

* No salary increase for the 20 months that the company dragged out the negotiations. Instead, the company offered a 3% one-time signing “bonus.” That is less than the inflationary-erosion to our wages that took place during stupefying delays engineered by the company.

* A mirage increase for years 3, 4, and 5, beginning April 1, 2013. The increase is described as “2%” but only a small number of the lowest paid people will actually get that much. That’s because the proposal would increase the “scale” wages listed in the contract by 2%, but most people in mid-career are making more than “scale.” So what is the true increase? Your mileage may vary, but it is likely to be a bit more than 1% and nowhere near 2%..

* Even a true 2% increase would not have kept us even against inflation; the far more realistic figure of a 1.5% increase will mean continued, drastic wage erosion. (Check the price of a metrocard or a gallon of gas lately?)

* The biggest hit: Don’t forget that our compensation includes wages and benefits, including payments made by the company to a retirement plan. Leaving aside entirely what form our retirement benefits take (pension, alternative pension, 401k, etc), look carefully at what is happening here. The retirement contribution — if we are lucky — will be cut by 31%: it goes from the current 9.5% of wages to 6.6%. For an employee whose salary is $100,000, that means $2,900 a year less. And there’s a big but with that. That cut applies only if the Guild’s novel retirement plan is approved by the IRS sometime in the next year. If it’s not approved, our retirement benefit will be cut to 3% of wages in a 401k plan. So we have a definite cut of $2,900, and a worst but not implausible case in which the retirement contributions are cut by $6,500 a year.

* On the positive side: the health care plan has been buttressed, and we will be eligible for a bonus of 1% to 2% of our actual (not scale) salaries if the company achieves certain targets. It’s good, but do not be deluded: most years, that still won’t add up to an inflation level wage increase. Another sound development: the digital work week has been reduced from 40 to 35 hours. That will be meaningful only if digital employees are rigorous in keeping to that schedule, and billing for every hour beyond 35. (Contrary to Terry Hayes’s remark that our hours are out of step with the American workforce, the NYT newsroom is filled with people who put in much more time than they are paid for. It was a malignantly ignorant statement.)

In short: every day that you come to work between now and April 2016, you will make less in real dollars than you did the day before.

Once, companies like The Times had to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in printing plants, in trucks, even in forests to produce their product and make sure it got to the readers on time. Now, we write, photograph, illustrate and edit the news; we print it; we deliver it with a push of the button. We protect the building. We sell the ads.

Paid circulation is up 40% over last year.

Had Arthur Sulzberger said to almost any of us, the company needs money, he would not have had to finish the sentence, and it would have been his.

Instead, the company negotiators, believing the newsroom to be congenitally timid, described us as “widget makers” and formulated their contempt into a contract that shrinks our wages and benefits. (Timeout for a quick rant: And then, when an historic storm hits, and we must scramble to get the news report out in the midst of it and a presidential election, and even the production of this contract proposal is delayed, the company negotiators refuse to extend their phony deadline by even a few days. It appears that they are incapable of shame.)

There are risks if we turn down this contract. Go back to the email and read the analyses from Michael Powell and Steve Greenhouse, two wise, sober heads on the negotiating committee who reluctantly endorsed the deal, and whose counsel is to be treasured.

But there are risks, too, to accepting this proposal, that go beyond money.

Over the last months, I’ve been privileged to add my name to letters signed by hundreds of my esteemed colleagues, saying that we would not settle for anything less than fair wages and benefits. That remains my position. It is why I am voting no. We can do better, and so can The New York Times. Believe it.

Vote.

In solidarity,

Jim Dwyer

———–

From: Herszenhorn, David
Sent: Monday, November 12, 2012 8:09 AM

Subject: A No Vote, Based on the Math

After propelling The New York Times to industry-leader in the digital age, you do not deserve lower pay and reduced retirement security.

I will vote against ratification today because, in real-dollar terms, the deal offered to us represents a serious cut in wages and benefits at a time when The New York Times Company remains profitable and everyone is working harder.

Not one person urging a vote in favor of ratification has said this is a good deal – because it is not. It is bad on wages. Bad on pension. And even bad on health care.

The math does not lie.

And the worst part is that the case in favor of ratification is based entirely on fear.

Of course, there is risk in rejecting any proposed contract deal. But refusing to ratify this agreement does not mean that Times Company will impose a worse offer – a step that would be terrible for the company’s public image and demonstrate naked contempt for its workers. Also, the Times cannot simply impose its terms. The Guild would fight such a move, at the National Labor Relations Board and in court — venues where the union’s willingness to compromise from the very outset of these negotiations would work in our favor.

Refusing to ratify also does not mean that a strike is inevitable. Guild negotiators have done an extremely admirable job given the Company’s absurd and insulting initial offer. A lot of progress was made, especially during recent mediation, only for it to be cut short by the looming hurricane. A fair deal, based on honest math, is not that far out of reach.

More than 500 of us signed a letter to Arthur Sulzberger telling him that the era of shriveling compensation must end, and urging him to “believe us.” I view a “no” vote as keeping my word on that.

By any measure of inflation, the proposed signing “bonus” of 3 percent, and the 2 percent annual increases will not be enough to keep salaries on pace with rising prices. We are being asked to vote to cut our own pay.

On pension, there is still far too much uncertainty about the proposed adjustable pension plan, the inevitable administrative costs, and how it would work in real-life market conditions. But we do know this: predictions of a 10 percent “haircut” in retirement benefits are a best-case scenario. For many of us, the cut in benefits will be far bigger. I trust our negotiators that big concessions on the pension are unavoidable, but this sacrifice by Guild members must be recognized elsewhere in the deal.

On health care, the company will contribute slightly more money to the plan. But the deal does not shift the company’s contribution to a percentage of plan costs, which would offer better protection against future price spikes and encourage better management of the plan. Bizarrely, the deal also calls for raiding the plan’s reserves to improve dental benefits – reserves that were bolstered only when we agreed to divert our previous wage increases. This is not a responsible way to pay for improved benefits.

But forget about us, for a moment. Many of us care as much, if not more, about the Times as an institution. For this reason, I was among those who urged a “cost-neutral” deal that would reflect the current challenges in the news business while not contributing to the dishonest defeatism of Company negotiators who described us as retrograde widget-makers in a dying industry.

The Company certainly has the money to reach such a fair deal. So far, it is simply unwilling to spend that money on the journalists whose work makes the Times so valuable to our readers.

This is not a deal that will help recruit and retain talent. This is not a deal that even represents shared sacrifice. It represents a sinister shift in priorities that increasingly seems to direct more resources to the corporate suites than to the newsroom.

On the math, it’s easy to vote no.

I salute and thank our valiant – and rightfully exhausted – negotiators and Guild leaders. And, echoing Jim Dwyer, I urge everyone to be counted in the vote.

-David Herszenhorn

——

Stephanie Saul:

There are a couple reasons I’m going to vote for the deal tomorrow, even though I agree with Donald, Jim and Matt that it’s not so sweet.

1) A majority of the negotiating committee members apparently support it, otherwise we would not be at this point. I wasn’t there at the negotiating table so I have to defer to the overall judgment of the group.
2) I think there’s a good chance things will get ugly if we don’t take the deal, and I don’t sense the will among the members to go to battle. If that sounds like fear talking, call me a coward, a wimp, a chicken.
Peace
Stephanie Saul

——-

David Kocieniewski:

Subject: Vote NO

I’m deeply grateful to members of the negotiating committee for their dedicated work through a grueling and demeaning process. Their commitment at the negotiating table wrung some significant concessions at a time when the company – let’s be honest – has not been bargaining in good faith.

Still, because of management’s intransigence, the contract proposal before us doesn’t even come close to being fair or reasonable. So I will vote no and urge all of you to rely on your judgment rather than your fears when coming to a decision.

From the very beginning of the bargaining process, it’s been clear that the Times’ negotiating strategy was calculated to take advantage of the newsroom’s loyalty and leverage its fears.

When the business was tanking and the company in peril a few years ago most of us voted to voluntarily sacrifice 5 percent of our pay because we care about the institution and its mission. Now that our work has helped make The Times profitable and flush with cash, management is repaying that loyalty with insults at the bargaining table and an insulting contract offer.

They’re betting that the disruption and uncertainty in the business has left us with residual Stockholm Syndrome so that we’ll be too cowed to stand up for ourselves…..that their threats of impasse will make us cave and, once again, negotiate against ourselves.

But, as David Herszenhorn points out, rejecting this proposal doesn’t mean a strike or that the company will necessarily declare impasse. Even if the worst case scenario takes place – the Times goes rogue and imposes stingier terms – we’ll have recourse in courts and with the NLRB, where any fair-minded person can see how unreasonable the company’s actions and proposals have been.

As it stands, this proposal offers such a steep reduction in real compensation and retirement security that many of us will have to consider leaving the paper and/or the business anyway. If we maintain our resolve and give the bargaining committee a mandate to continue fighting for a better deal, we will at least I’ll have the peace of mind of knowing we weren’t complicit in our own fleecing.

At the risk of sounding like someone who’s spent way too many hours in hockey locker rooms: If someone’s going to plunder tens of thousands of dollars from my family, they’re going to have to pry the money out of my bank account – I’m certainly not going to vote to hand it to them.

David Kocieniewski

—–

Michael Barbaro:

I feel compelled to weigh in, as a tide of skepticism begins to dominate this email thread. A bit of bio: I am the proud son of two union parents, whose benefits made a big difference in my life.

— I’ve never expected to have a pension by retirement. Maybe I’ve covered too many cheap retail companies, or watched our fellow journalists at rival media companies lose theirs entirely. Now, I am told that our negotiating team has secured us a reasonable, solid alternative. I am impressed.

— I have become accustomed to no raises, zilch — in fact, we have given money back to this company. Now, I am told we do have raises for the next few years. Sure, they are modest. But they are raises in an economy where raises are hard to come by.

— I had never even imagined a structural bonus. Now we receiving a taste of the bonus pool. If managers continue get bonuses, which they have consistently, then so will we. Can we argue over more? We can. But this is money that we do not receive now.

Those are serious upsides.

Yes, there are downsides, too. But the real downside — and I don’t hear enough people talking about it if we vote against this contract — likely involves work stoppages and strikes. Those would exact their own very steep cost, not just in dollars.

This is a shaky time in a shaky industry.

Michael Barbaro

————

As long as we’re lining up–

With all respect to my friends saying no, I say yes. Not because it’s a good deal, but because it is a deal we can live with in a time of diminished expectations in this industry and across the country. Our negotiators have done an amazing job of budging an intransigent management team, and I don’t see the NLRB stepping up in a big way to help us in this environment.

John Schwartz

————

As a daughter of civil servants, I’m deeply disappointed that we won’t maintain our old pension system. Having said that, I’m voting yes. I was swayed by the arguments of our negotiating committee members — Michael Powell and Steve Greenhouse. (Steve, as you all know, has covered complicated and ugly labor disputes for more than a decade.) They both weighed in at length on the proposed contract last week. It might be worth reading their emails again before you vote.

Rachel Swarns

————-

Michael Powell:

I very much appreciate the careful and thoughtful words of Jim Dwyer and David Herszenhorn . They and others raise many sensible objections to the contract, and add a useful soupcon of anger at the New York Times treatment of its employees.

And I join with them in urging everyone, adamant opponents and those in favor of this contract, to vote. It’s our right, earned over lots of hard years, and we should make our voices heard.

But, in the end, I disagree with them. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll briefly recap why, in the end, I supported this deal, and why it would be a mistake to vote it down.

As I say, none of us felt any joy with this settlement. The NYT behaved badly throughout. And let’s be clear, it is not the hired mouthpiece Bernie Plum or Terry Hayes who own this contract. It is Arthur. It’s very nice to appeal to the angels of his better nature, but he was CEO and Chairman, and he owns this deal.

That said, we exist in a straitened times. And, as much as the moral dudgeon expressed by opponents resonates with me, if we follow their proposed course to its logical conclusion we will be left at an uncertain doorstep. More on that later.

On salary, I’ll start with what was most objectionable. We agreed to a 3 percent lump sum to cover past two years. I detest lump sums. And this comes out to 1.5 percent per year spread over 2011 and 2012.

That said, there is modest good news: The lump sum payment is not calculated on the top minimum. Rather, it is based on our actual salary. If you make $120,000, you will receive a lump sum payment of $3600.

As to the actual salary increases: These are 2-2-2 from 2013 to 2015. I completely agree with Jim; that ain’t great. On the other hand, the inflation rate for NYC now bouncing along at about 2 or 2-and-change. And the Fed expects to keep interest rates as effective zero for the next three years. (Jim is correct, of course; our salary increases are on the top minimum, and that hurts all of us; for reasons that escape me, this has been NYT/Guild practice deep into the mists of time. Several of us tried change that, but the chances of doing so this year were slim. It’s not a problem unique to this contract).

As well, we negotiated a taste from the annual management bonus pool. If the NYT hits its bonus target, as it has in more than 90 percent of years past, we will get bonuses equal to 1 percent of salary. A bonus is not the same as an increase in salary; it does not go into our base pay, and does nothing for our 401k or our pension.

But it does mean that a 2 percent salary increase will feel more like a cousin of a 3 percent increase. If the NYT exceeds its annual target for the management bonuses, we could get a bonus closer to two percent of salary.

Opponents—again, friends of mine—argue that the bonus is uncertain. I agree. But if we assume that management needs to give bonuses to its excludeds—a safe assumption to my view—well, we have tethered ourselves to the same feeding tube. We are likely to get an annual taste of this.

Now, as to the APP. Jim Dwyer (and I want to emphasize that I’ve worked with Jim at a couple newspapers for approximately 1,003 years and I hold him – and David, and Donald – in the highest possible esteem) notes that management ratcheted down its contribution in a lousy fashion.

He’s right.

They went down 30 percent. That does not mean that our plan will produce a 30 percent reduced return. Most of the actuarial projections suggest a more modest reduction in benefits.

And in coming years, if we remain organized and attack from the get-go, we can push that percentage up. As with all matters in our contract, it’s subject to sustained agitation and negotiation.

We also achieved quite a few real victories, which are given too short shrift. We funded the health plan such that we won’t have to divert wages as we have for many years. We preserved three weeks severance for members threatened with layoffs out of seniority. We achieved one contract for digital, a move betters the lives of more than 100 members.

We even got late night/early morning cab rides homes for all members, not just digital.

But let me get to the nub: Let’s assume we vote down the contract. What next? Here I believe some are too optimistic. We might, as some suggest, march back to the table and face down management and ratchet another half a percent on salary out of them, not to mention some actual retroactive salary.

Maybe.

I possess no Nate Silver divining rod, but I’d assign about a ten percent chance of that happening. The far more likely course, to my view, is that management imposes a contract that almost certainly will result in a weaker shadow of this proposed contract.

Here I am in fact in Donald’s camp. If we reject this contract—and that that’s most certainly your right—we need to get serious. Michael Moss, another longtime comrade, says he won’t picket Arthur’s house but he will walk 8th Avenue.

We’ll need to do a lot more than that. Let’s at least be realistic and level with each other about our next steps. We should take a strike authorization vote (which is not the same as going on strike), we should leaflet subway stations, and yes, picket Arthur’s building.

To believe that we can reject this contract, write a few more nice letters to Arthur, walk back to the table and with steely stares obtain a better settlement strikes me as a delusion. And, with respect, too many of our members rely on this contract to argue that grander principles take precedent; we need to weigh consequences.

I hope it doesn’t come to that; I hope you see what is defensible in this contract (particularly when compared to contracts across the industry and across the country) and vote yes.

But above all, catcalls or applause, please vote.

Best

Michael Powell

————-
Steven Greenhouse:

Jim Dwyer, David Herszenhorn and David Kocieniewski all sent out strongly argued letters this morning. I do not want to get into a back-and-forth with them. I said my piece in a note I sent out last week (I’m including it below) explaining why I am urging ratification even though the deal is disappointing in several ways.

I realize that no one is elated about the deal, and that many understandably feel a desire to vote no – if only to tell Arthur and the rest of management how dismayed we are that they are not being more generous in compensating us for our hard and excellent work.

But the real question now is whether voting no will render us better off or worse off. If Guild members vote down the deal, the Guild may somehow manage to pressure Arthur and senior management to be more generous. Or Arthur and senior management may just dig in and say, we already gave you the best deal we could afford. And very possibly the company could back and impose a worse “last, best and final offer” that may very well remove the 3% lump sum “signing bonus” that’s part of the current package.

I think it will probably prove a vain hope to look to the NLRB to save us if Guild members vote down the deal. At that point, the two sides would resume negotiations and the Times might then declare impasse and impose a “last, best and final offer.” The Guild can go to the NLRB and ask it to declare that there was not a real impasse or that the company was bargaining in bad faith, so the company shouldn’t be allowed to impose its “last, best and final offer.” The company has hired some very expert lawyers, and I don’t doubt that they know how to handle negotiations in a way to persuade the NLRB that there was a real impasse, a real deadlock and that the company was indeed negotiating in good faith. The company’s lawyers will of course argue that the newspaper industry is in decline, that the NYT’s finances are not in great shape, and that this, in good faith, is all that the NYT can afford. And even if the Guild persuades the NLRB to rule that there was not an impasse or that the company was not bargaining in good faith, that just restores us to status quo ante, without a contract.

A few final points to correct some points that others have made:

The new contract does not call for a two-tier benefit structure in the traditional sense of that term. Everyone — veteran employees and new hires, digital employees and traditional newsroom employees — will receive the same benefits. Where there will be “two benefits” is that we will get pension benefits from the existing, soon-to-be-frozen pension plan, and we will also get pension benefits from the new Adjustable Pension Plan.

As I understand things, David Herszenhorn isn’t quite right to say that the company’s $300,000 increased contribution toward our health plan will come out of the Guild’s health plan reserves. Under the deal, the Times is to increase its health-care contributions by $3.75 million — $750,000 in 2013, $1.5 million in 2014 and $1.5 million in 2015. That is expected to be more than enough to cover any increased outlays by the Guild-Times health plan. If all of that $3.75 million isn’t used up, then as much as $300,000 of that will go to supplement the Guild’s sagging, lagging dental fund.

With regard to what Matt Wald said about pensions: In a nutshell, the way the Adjustable Pension Plan works is, let’s say your salary is $100,000 and the actuaries declare that this year we will get 1.2 percent of our salaries for our pensions for this year. – That means you will get an annuity of $1,200 just for this year alone when you retire. Well if you work at the Times for 30 years, and the annual annuity percentage averages 1.2 percent of salary (some years it might be 1.1 or 1.3 percent) – then you should, at a minimum, get 30 times $1,200 or $36,000 as your pension. Actually, you would get more than that because the amount one multiplies 1.1% by will increase each year as your salary increases.

Also, if you work 30 years for the NYT — 20 years under the old, frozen pension plan and 10 under the new Adjustable Pension Plan, you will get your 20 years of benefits under the old plan and another 10 years of benefits under the new APP, which we all agree is likely to be somewhat less generous than the frozen pension plan.

Lastly, thanks for all the kind words for members of the negotiating committee. We pushed as hard as we could.

Best,

Steve Greenhouse

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