Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Reality 1, New York Times 0

You might have noticed in the past month that the Boston Globe ran into some financial difficulties, continuing the recent trend for newspaper nationally (see also: Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune). In order for the paper to avoid being shut down, it needed to cut $20 million. Where did managers look to cut costs? The unions.

The irony is, of course, that the Globe is owned by the New York Times. That’s right, the same New York Times that you have known and loved (maybe not the latter) for its editorials that consistently view labor unions through rose-colored glasses. Looks like this is a case of the New York Times meeting reality.

After an initial standoff, the Globe announced last week that it had reached a deal with one of its unions that would allow it to stay open, for now. The Boston Newspaper Guild agreed to a pay cut of 8.4 percent and – here’s the kicker – the union also agreed to eliminate lifetime job guarantees for 190 employees.

How did employees get lifetime job guarantees in the first place? The Huffington Post explains:

Nearly 470 employees across six unions had the guarantees, including about 190 Newspaper Guild members. Most got the promises in exchange for concessions in a contract ratified in 1994, shortly after the Times Co. bought the Globe for $1.1 billion.

The deal to cut costs still requires approval from workers, so anything could happen. There may even be litigation from the unions if the deal falls through and the ownership tries to cut costs on its own.

Anyone who isn’t sure of the financial burdens that unions can impose on businesses should take a look at the Globe and other papers’ troubles. Maybe next time the Times’ editorial board will take a lesson from the financial managers. In the meantime, we’ve collected some of the juiciest quotes from past New York Times editorials. After all of the haggling and threats of closure, does anyone think the Times might be having a case of buyer’s remorse?

There is little doubt that American workers need unions. Wages today are almost 10 percent lower than they were in 1973, after accounting for inflation. … A bill that would have made it easier for unions to organize workers died in the Senate last June. Congress should take up this issue again to stop companies from using threats and other aggressive tactics to keep organized labor out, and to help win workers their rightful share of the economic pie. — Editorial, February 7, 2008

Even modest increases in the share of the unionized labor force push wages upward, because nonunion workplaces must keep up with unionized ones that collectively bargain for increases. By giving employees a bigger say in compensation issues, unions also help to establish corporate norms, the absence of which has contributed to unjustifiable disparities between executive pay and rank-and-file pay. — Editorial, December 29, 2008

Labor unions have a role to play in helping to fix today’s economic ills — most notably, worsening income inequality, a problem that’s caused in part by unions’ decline and the workers’ resulting lack of bargaining power. — Editorial, March 6, 2007

Far from balancing the scales, the anti-union drive comes when workers are already at a historic low in bargaining strength. … We are getting closer and closer to a work force with no benefits and no substantive protections. Some unions succumbed to corruption and contributed to their own decline. But their role in giving common workers a voice is essential to a functioning society. –Editorial, October 6, 2007

There is, then, reason to welcome the end to the downward slide of union membership. But there are as yet no grounds for optimism about the future. –Editorial, January 22, 2000

At their best, unions insure that workers gain influence over their work environment and are protected against arbitrary managers. They can help create a humane, respectful workplace that sets an enviable standard for businesses throughout the economy. … By giving workers a voice to express their discontents and hopes, unions can improve morale, reduce turnover and thereby enhance productivity. How much productivity rises is disputable. But the contribution unions have made to decent labor relations is not. — Editorial, August 5, 1989

Wal-Mart’s prices are about 14 percent lower than other groceries’ because the company is aggressive about squeezing costs, including labor costs. Its workers earn a third less than unionized grocery workers, and pay for much of their health insurance. Wal-Mart uses hardball tactics to ward off unions. Since 1995, the government has issued at least 60 complaints alleging illegal anti-union activities. — November 15, 2003

Categories: Center for Union FactsEFAC