Striking divisions

Will workers at the Times and P-I preserve their unity despite important differences?

AFTER A WEEK of the Newspaper Guild strike, several Post-Intelligencer reporters observed an interesting difference in the way P-I and Seattle Times managers were responding. The Times talked of anger and reinforced its building as if strikers were an invading army. The P-I stressed conciliation and respect for its workers. "Myself and some other people started saying, 'Why not pursue separate negotiations with the P-I?'" says Tom Paulson, a reporter from that paper. Paulson emphasizes that the idea was not meant to undermine the union or jettison their Times colleagues. In fact, separate negotiations had been an initial Guild request rejected by the papers.

At press time, nothing had yet come of the new initiative. A midweek meeting of P-I editorial workers at reporter Andy Schneider's house failed to produce a consensus. Now, since the P-I began hiring replacement reporters last week, the warm feelings toward management may fade.

Yet the effort has contributed to concern over possible divisions within the Guild. Paulson says, "Some people are starting to worry: 'Is the P-I agenda completely different from the Times'? Are the newsrooms at odds with circulation and advertising?'"

The question of a rift between editorial staffers and other workers in the Guild is all the more pertinent because Times and P-I reporters have been meeting on their own. Times reporter Ross Anderson says that as many as 100 editorial workers have shown up for several meetings at his house. And the possibility of crossing the picket line has been broached. "Almost everything has been on the agenda," Anderson says. But he says the meetings are mainly to hash through conflicting emotions reporters feel given that the strike, as almost everyone acknowledges, is driven largely by the needs of advertising and circulation staffers. "We're all caught up in this thing that we didn't create but that we're part of," Anderson says. "And we need to talk about it."

Probably most newspaper journalists feel underpaid, earning far less than other professionals. Reporters at the Times and P-I—whose average salary runs around $50,000, according to the union—are no exception. Other sticking points in the negotiations are a two-tier wage system and the company's unwillingness to contribute to workers' 401(k) plans. At the same time, it's a point of pride for many journalists that they're not in it for the money—they're in it because they love their work—so many in the Times and P-I newsrooms, where union activism is sparse, say they would not have struck for their own benefit. Before the strike, when Guild members took a hand vote on whether to accept a federal mediator's recommendation for a 48-hour cooling-off period rather than to strike immediately, observers say the minority that favored the idea tended to be newsroom staffers.

When that idea went down, journalists were left in an ethical quandary over whether to support the strike, and it caused a great deal of anguish. Surprisingly, that anguish has less to do with people's financial circumstances than it does with loyalty toward the papers and their managers. That is particularly true among staffers from the Times, which has cultivated a sense of family.

"When I had my children, they let me take off nine months," says Times critic Mary Ann Gwinn. "They let me work part-time for seven years. These things mean a lot. So it makes me sad to be here [on strike]." Gwinn's voice gets shaky as she talks about it. Her colleague Ross Anderson, more conflicted than most because his wife is an editor working throughout the strike, breaks down as he discusses the difficult decision that his colleagues are making and his belief that many of them will never come back to the paper.

So close is the bond between reporters and editors at the Times that editors crossing the line every morning are given hugs by striking reporters.

In contrast, P-I employees don't think of themselves as part of the Hearst family. And morale in the newsroom over the years has not been great. But as reporter Joel Connelly puts it, "It has been better lately than ever before." Popular new editors and a new breed of young reporters have helped forge a vibrant team spirit. "We don't want to screw a good thing up," says reporter Gordy Holt, who has been at the paper for 32 years.

On top of all that, there are some questions among editorial staffers about how the union has handled the strike. Reporter Paulson from the P-I wonders why the Guild didn't nail down support from other unions at the Times, most notably Teamsters Local 763, which represents 607 delivery drivers and newspaper assemblers. Only two of the 16 other bargaining units besides the Guild's at the Times are honoring the picket line.

Times reporter Sally McDonald is also troubled by the union's refusal to allow a vote on the papers' contract offer. Guild spokesperson Art Thiel says that the union's discretion over whether to vote on a contract is crucial leverage in negotiating with the company. But McDonald was unhappy enough about that and the strike in general to choose not to abide by it.

Nevertheless, what is most remarkable about the editorial members of the Guild is their resolve, for the most part, to honor the picket line in spite of their ambivalence. Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher wrote in a column on the first week of the strike that four dozen Guild members were continuing to work in the newsroom. The paper's spokesperson won't confirm that number, however. And McDonald says it's pretty lonely where she sits, estimating that there are "only a handful" of reporters back at work.

Editorial staffers say that they have gotten to know the classified and advertising folks on the picket line and that they're disturbed at their treatment by the Times, which handles the business end for both papers. "They're making $500, $550 a week—single mothers who have a couple of kids," says Holt.

Most crucially, though, a matter of principle is at stake. Again and again, editorial staffers say they simply cannot cross a picket line. "I've felt my whole life that workers have the right to collectively bargain," says veteran Times reporter Jack Broom, "In a sense this is the first time my belief has cost me anything." It's a challenge he and many of his colleagues feel obligated to meet. "We'll stay out as long as it takes."

 
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