New York Times Union Members 'Deeply Divided' On New Contract

11/12/2012 01:41 pm ET | Updated Jan 12, 2013

New York Times staffers are "deeply divided" over whether to ratify a proposed contract, one of the paper's reporters wrote on Monday.

Staffers are set to vote for or against the proposed contact, which was hammered out over more than a year of negotiating, on Tuesday.

Times reporter Donald McNeil, who has been among the most outspoken staffers on the question of the contract, sent a sampling of the Guild's email conversations to reporters from several outlets, including The Huffington Post. The thread showed sharp disagreements about the deal. Opponents described it as a slap in the face from management, and one that will harm the staff over the long term. Proponents said that they did not think a better deal was available, even with further action.

Below, see a sampling of some of the discussion.

FOR A "NO" VOTE: Jeffrey Gettleman, foreign correspondent:

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

FOR A "YES" VOTE: Michael Barbaro, political reporter:

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

FOR A "NO" VOTE: Jim Dwyer, metropolitan reporter and member of the negotiating team:

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

FOR A "YES" VOTE: Steven Greenhouse, labor reporter and member of the negotiating team:

Subj: Vote To Ratify Even If It's Far From Perfect:

Dear Colleagues,

Before I launch into my over-long discussion of the tentative contract, I first want to say I never cease to be amazed at the extraordinary level of talent and dedication in our newsroom, whether it's covering Hurricane Sandy or an impossibly close presidential election or myriad other subjects.

In recent days I've been feeling like Hamlet because I feel so torn about the tentative new contract. When we on the negotiating committee were asked to vote whether to recommend the deal for ratification or to reject it, I was at first very tempted to abstain. I feared that if the committee recommended the deal, that would be seen as giving our seal of approval to management's top negotiators, Bernie Plum and Terry Hayes, who were often condescending and petulant and who ultimately insisted on a less generous deal on wages than I thought we deserved.

But several committee members whom I respect convinced me that after 20 months of tough bargaining, this was the best deal we were going to get and that if we rejected the deal, there was a good chance the company would declare impasse and impose a "last, best and final offer" that would be considerably worse than the deal we had reached.

So it was with considerable ambivalence that I voted to recommend the deal to the membership.

It is a deal that smart, fair-minded folks can disagree on, and I'm sure that some colleagues -and not just Donald McNeil -- will make strong arguments against it. We on the negotiating committee certainly wish we could have delivered a better deal, but the company's negotiators really dug in. And the frustrating part is that if we vote down the deal to show our displeasure, the company -- which seems extremely eager to have a deal in place within the next few weeks -- may move quickly to impose a "final offer" with worse retirement benefits, worse severance benefits and smaller raises.

The main reason I hesitated to recommend the deal was that it doesn't offer enough on wages. The negotiating committee pushed very hard for raises of at least 2.5 percent a year for five years so that we could keep pace with inflation. I came away from the talks convinced that management's negotiators were under firm orders from Arthur and the company's other top executives not to give any raise whatsoever for the contract's first two years and not to give a raise above 2 percent in any of the contract's last three years. That, I believe, is why we ended up with no raise for 2011 and 2012 (although there is a lump-sum payment of 3 percent of gross salary for 2012), and raises of just 2 percent in each of years three, four and five. That's not very good, that doesn't keep pace with inflation, and yes, I realize that for many of us, those 2 percent raises based on scale will translate into raises of a mere 1.6 percent or so.

But there's a potentially important sweetener: for years three, four and five, on top of those raises, the Times is offering us bonuses of 1 percent in good years -- and we're told that most years we should be receiving such bonuses. And in excellent years, which I suspect will be far less frequent, we are to receive 2 percent bonuses.

Believe me, we on the negotiating team pushed the mediator very hard to convey to the company's side that many in the newsroom would be steamed if they didn't receive raises of a least 2.5 percent a year. But the Times simply would not budge above 2 percent. Indeed, we had to push very hard to even get the company up to 2 percent a year in the last three years. We complained mightily that 2 percent raises would cause us to lose ground to inflation. And the company's answer, as conveyed to us by the mediator, was that when we receive those 1 percent annual bonuses, that will keep us above inflation. We heard more than once from the other side that we shouldn't have unrealistic expectations about wages, considering the NYT's weak financial performance, considering the industry's overall troubles and considering that some far more prosperous companies - like Caterpillar - had pressured their unions into accepting multiyear pay freezes.

In light of how hard so many of us in the Guild are working nowadays and in light of how Arthur and other top executives often lavish praise on newsroom employees for the wonders we perform -- great job on the Hurricane Sandy, great job on election coverage -- I'm mystified that the company was not more forthcoming on raises. We all recognize that the Times continues to have financial difficulties, but I also thought the Times was a team, a big family, and we should all not only pull together, but also share in the gain together and share in the pain together. But I came away from the negotiations feeling that we in the Guild were being asked to suffer unduly on wages.

I shall return to the subject of wages later, but on the positive side of the ledger, the Times committed to pay an increased annual contribution into our health plan that should in theory save us from once again having to divert more from our paychecks to keep our health plan solvent. The Guild's actuaries said the company's increased contribution should be large enough to assure adequate funding so long as the health plan's annual outlays do not rise by more than 10 percent a year. The actuaries said that seemed a safe bet because the health plan's expenditures have essentially remained flat the past two years. Moreover, the Times agreed to contribute an additional $300,000 to shore up our sagging dental plan, and hopefully that will mean that the reimbursements for our dental work will no longer be so paltry.

Also on the positive side, the company gave in on one of its main demands -- it had pushed hard to reduce severance to two weeks of pay for each year worked at the Times, down from the current three weeks. We on the negotiating committee saw this as an important victory because that provision should help persuade the Times to hesitate all the more if it again considers layoffs. And that provision should go far to provide a safety net to anyone who is laid off.

On pensions, the company's negotiators said from Day One that the negotiations would go nowhere, that we'd never get a contract, unless the Guild agreed to a freeze on our current defined benefit pension plan. The Times insisted that it would no longer tolerate a defined benefit pension plan in which the company would have to kick in unanticipated additional millions every time the stock market tumbled. To keep the negotiations from going over the cliff, the Guild very reluctantly agreed to the company's demand for a pension freeze. Such a freeze means that Guild members who have qualified for pensions will still get their pensions, but the amount promised under the old plan will be frozen at its current level no matter how many more years one works at the Times

The Guild did persuade the Times to create a new, innovative pension plan that won't be as generous as the old, frozen plan, although the new plan should still be pretty good. And because of the way the new plan is structured, it should protect us from a brutal market downturn far more than 401k plans do. (I'll leave it to Guild officials to explain exactly how this new plan works.)

The negotiating committee had pushed the Times to contribute the same percentage into the new retirement plan as it did into our old, frozen pension plan -- 9.5 percent of each Guild member's salary. But the company refused to go an ounce above 6.6 percent, saying it couldn't possibly go higher because that would mean contributing more for Guild members than for NYT excludeds. Yes, that 6.6 percent amount is disappointing, but let's hope that we in the Guild will be able to persuade the Times to increase that amount in future negotiations, especially if the company's financial performance brightens. (Don't forget, we will still have the company's partial match on the first 6 percent of salary that we contribute to our 401k's.)

The deal contains some other nice new provisions. The Times agreed to pay cab fare home to anywhere in the five boroughs for anyone who leaves work between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. Cab fare is now offered only to digital employees who leave those hours, but now with the merged contract, cab fare will be extended to everyone in the newsroom who leaves in the wee hours. The company also agreed to reduce the workweek for digital employees to 40 hours from 35 (at least on paper), with digital employees continuing to receive the same amount of pay. The deal also increases the number of personal days we receive to three each year, up from one.

The deal also contains various not-so-nice provisions, as Karen Grzelewski has pointed out. The Times pushed mighty hard for dozens of concessions - the negotiating committee beat them back on most of those demands, but negotiating is a process of give and take in which you win some and lose some.

From early on, Jim Dwyer, David Herszenhorn, Richard Perez Pena, and others, I among them, have set the goal of obtaining a deal on compensation that would keep us from losing ground to inflation. Several of us on the negotiating committee repeatedly told the mediator to convey to the company that many people in the newsroom would be very unhappy if the deal didn't provide raises of 2.5 percent - that's more or less the inflation rate as well as the yardstick many in the newsroom were seeking. I believe the mediator made that case to the company.

But the company's negotiators wouldn't budge much on wages. It took some real arguing and pushing to get the company to go from its offer of 3.5 percent in raises over the last three years to a total of 6 percent over the last three years, with no yearly raise above 2 percent. In my view, the company was blockheaded and myopic in refusing to give us several years of raises of at least 2.5 percent. I told the mediator quite emphatically that if the company failed to do that, it would leave a bad taste in many people's mouths and would seriously damage newsroom morale, perhaps for years.

We also urged the mediator to tell the company's negotiators that it was wrong not to give Guild members raises for 2011 and 2012 when the company had given excluded managers 3 percent raises for those years. (The response we got from management was that excludeds received no raises the previous three years, although we in the Guild hardly did much better - we received raises of just 1 percent the previous two years.) We also argued to the mediator that it seemed grossly unfair for the company to offer us such meager raises after the Times had given bonuses of 26 percent, 32 percent and 13 percent to numerous newsroom managers over the past three years and after the company gave a severance package of more than $20 million to Janet Robinson. (I could tell that the mediator thought it was a bit absurd, poor management strategy and in many ways indefensible for the company to lavish such huge bonuses on its managers and then turn around and offer no raises to us for two years and below-inflation raises for the other three years.)

I imagine that some Guild members will make a principled argument that we should vote down this deal because it fails to keep up with inflation, which we expect to be around 12.5 percent over the life of the contract. The tentative deal calls for just 6 percent in raises over five years, which leaves us far behind inflation. One might value the 3 percent lump sum payment for 2012 as worth around 0.5 percent a year, so that would theoretically bring the value of our "wage increases" up to 6.5 percent. And if we're lucky and receive 1 percent bonuses for 2013, 2014 and 2015, that would translate, sort of, into an overall pay increase of 9.5 percent over the contract's five years. That would still leave us trailing inflation, but not as drastically. I realize that these bonuses, unlike real raises, are not built into the base and thus do little to help us keep pace with inflation.

Notwithstanding my dismay with the wage part of the deal, I think the Guild did well on health coverage, very well on severance, and so-so on pensions. In my view, it adds up all in all to an OK deal.

(An aside: time and again, the mediator told us that we were wrong to think that the cost of this contract would be just a few million dollars extra a year for the Times. Under the tentative deal, the company will pay around $3 million less per year toward our retirement plan, but about $1.25 million more a year on average toward our health plan, And at the end of five years, the company will pay around $6 million more per year for our raises. All told that means the company will pay about $4.25 million more a year toward our wages, health coverage and retirement plan at the end of the five-year contract than the approximately $116 million it paid per year under the contract that expired 20 months ago. That translates into an overall 3.7 percent cost increase for the Times (an increase of less than 0.8 percent per year). But management's negotiators and the mediator kept saying, Don't forget that the Times is also paying an extra $20 million or so not just this year but for several more years into the Guild's pension plan to bring it up to adequate funding levels. Our response was that this was a contractual obligation that the Times had to meet like any other contractual obligation, and it shouldn't be used as an excuse for the company to stiff us on raises.)

A big reason I voted to approve the deal and recommend it to Guild members was the company's threat that if the two sides failed to reach an agreement, the company would declare impasse and impose its final offer, an offer that might reduce our already small raises, reduce our severance payments and replace our new pension plan with a highly volatile 401k plan. That was a real possibility, and it remains a real possibility if we vote to reject the deal.

In coming days, some Guild members will no doubt make strong arguments urging everyone to reject the deal, while others will support ratification. I hope that we can keep this debate civil and avoid vituperation. Those opposing the deal will no doubt hope that if Guild members vote down the contract and then do more picketing or authorize a strike, that will pressure Arthur and other top executives to improve their offer to the Guild. Such moves just might persuade the company to sweeten its offer. Or such moves may very well cause the company to move swiftly to impose a somewhat worse final offer.

I and most others on the negotiating committee are recommending ratification because we concluded that this very imperfect deal was the best deal we could get from the company and because we don't believe that voting down the deal will yield a better result -- and such a move might result in a worse result.

That's not a ringing endorsement of ratification, but it is a realistic one.

Occasionally I do the following calculus: If we reject the deal, will the probability of getting the company to improve its offer X the amount by which it improves its offer be greater than or lesser than the probability that the company imposes a final offer X how much worse that imposed offer would be than the tentative deal we reached.

I fear that we will end up with a worse, imposed offer by rejecting the contract (but I could be wrong about that.)

Lastly, I am very grateful to my colleagues on the negotiating committee who spent the past 20 months butting heads with management's negotiators -- I joined that committee only a few weeks ago. I am also grateful to dozens of colleagues in the Guild for standing up, speaking out and working together to push for as good a contract as we could get. I was amazed at the huge amount of intelligence, imagination and energy that so many colleagues devoted to this contract fight.

Thanks for reading this long note - and my apologies for being so long-winded. There's a lot to explain.

In semi-frustration and in solidarity,

Steve Greenhouse

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