Boston Business Journal by Don Seiffert 12-23-20
Last month, executives at the Boston Globe held an online town hall meeting just hours after they were the subject of a scathing letter from the newspaper’s union.
The union, which represents 300 journalists and business-side employees, had criticized the company and its owners, Linda and John Henry, for continuing to employ the law firm Jones Day to handle contract negotiations. Jones Day, which had long represented the Trump campaign, had recently come under fire for filing a lawsuit on behalf of Republicans over mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. Globe journalists argued they were unable to fairly report on the election aftermath if they were at the same time dealing with that same law firm in seeking a new contract.
But at the Nov. 18 town hall, executives didn’t address the complaint at all. Rather, they announced that Linda Pizzuti Henry, who had been acting as the company’s de facto leader since the sudden departure of the company’s president months earlier, would officially assume the role of CEO. Executives also announced the promotions of five top executives to new roles, and two other recent top-level hires were celebrated.
Many of the members of the Boston Newspaper Guild (BNG) — who had not gotten raises in two years since the last contract expired in December 2018 — saw the meeting as a slap in the face. “It was like they’re putting on a show, and we were all peasants,” said one person who was on the Zoom call. “It was just tone-deaf.”
The meeting was another flashpoint in the union’s bitter fight to maintain contractual protections against staffing cuts. Ever since talks began in 2018, union members have shown their dissatisfaction with what’s been offered by the company, but in the past few months, despite most staffers working from home, the complaints have become more public as both sides have put out warring memos arguing their case.
Two years in, the standoff at New England’s largest media organization promises to get even more visible in coming months, as the Boston Newspaper Guild promises to start bringing its concerns about how the changes sought by the Globe will affect the paper directly to readers.
“A lot of our journalists are from Massachusetts. They all grew up reading the Globe, and they don’t want it to go down in quality,” said Matt Rocheleau, BNG’s secretary who has been involved in negotiations. “And it will go down in quality if the things they want take effect.”
Currently, the union says it’s waiting for a response to “nearly one dozen outstanding requests for information that journalists know are needed to get to the next level of discussions.”
In an emailed statement, the company did not address the specifics of negotiations, but said the Henrys have made “significant investments” that have “strengthened the Globe, furthered its mission, and positioned it for long-term sustainability.”
“The company has avoided newsroom layoffs during the pandemic and provided accommodations, additional benefits, and financial support to all staff during these challenging times ー even without a new labor contract in place,” the company said. “The Globe is eager to finalize a new contract and is awaiting the Guild’s return to the bargaining table.”
Admiration and skepticism
While some of the biggest impasses in contract talks have recently spilled out into internal memos from both the company and the union, both sides declined to talk about specifics. Much of the information for this article came from interviews with 10 people familiar with the inner workings of the Globe’s business. The sources include both active and non-active union members, and both business-side and editorial employees.
Many expressed thanks and admiration for the Henrys’ decision to buy the Globe in 2013. None of the sources had any serious complaints about Linda Henry’s management or leadership. One even praised her leadership, citing a time she showed up with her kids in early 2016, during a company-wide crisis, to help deliver newspapers. More recently, they said, the company has been generous in offering employees free classes, and some praised Linda as a strong supporter of women in leadership. A source in the company’s Taunton printing facility said that there have been no layoffs among print and mailroom workers there due to the pandemic, despite print weekday subscriptions falling another 15% year-over-year.
However, journalists and business-side workers say they are “perplexed” by what they call the company’s inflexible stance over certain aspects of the contract. Indeed, pay raises and benefits have never been the focus of the talks, but rather they’ve centered on a number of changes from previous contracts regarding protections for workers. A few — including a dispute over the company’s obligations to pay overtime to some employees — have been resolved, but three major sticking points remain:
‘Union-busting law firm’
The current negotiation isn’t the worst the paper has seen in recent decades. Workers went without a contract for more than three years until striking an agreement in 2004, and in 2009, the paper’s then-owner, The New York Times, threatened to shut the paper down entirely unless the union quickly agreed to concessions.
But staffers say that the company’s unwillingness to compromise on what they see as crucial provisions is new. Many speculate that it partially stems from the company’s attempt to discipline columnist Kevin Cullen in 2018 due to what the Globe reported to be “significant problems in a series of radio interviews and some public remarks he made in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.” In December 2018, after months of arbitration, Cullen’s suspension was overturned.
Several union members also believe that the Henrys are being urged to take a hard line by Jones Day, which arguably has an interest in burnishing its image as a firm that can negotiate union contracts favorable to owners of media companies. In a written statement on behalf of the union, Rocheleau called Jones Day a “highly priced, union-busting law firm” that is “running up a giant and unnecessary tab at the expense of readers and the Henrys.”
“It is our understanding that the longer the talks last, the more Jones Day gets paid, and that’s reflected in their unnecessarily extreme and stalled out approach. We think that if John Henry or Linda Pizzuti Henry were paying attention to what Jones Day is doing, and how much the law firm is costing readers and the paper, ownership and the new CEO might grab the wheel and take back control,” said Rocheleau.
The Globe did not respond to questions about its hiring of Jones Day, and Patricia Dunn, the Jones Day attorney who is overseeing negotiation for the company, did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
But while the company appears dug in on its position, members of the union appear unwilling to agree to any contract that doesn’t include the key provisions. Of the 10 people familiar with the inner workings of the company who were interviewed, none said they believed there is any appetite among members to acquiesce to the Globe’s demands. One staffer who is not heavily involved in union activities conceded that there may be “a grain of truth” to the notion that the negotiating team is caught up in the fight, but even that staffer said they prioritize protections for employees over short-term pay raises and benefits.
One longtime Globe reporter said that Jones Day’s involvement seems to have wasted much of the past two years. The reporter said that even when the New York Times was threatening to close the paper, the two sides were able to advance negotiations more quickly than they have in recent years.
“I think morale is depressed for sure,” the reporter said, but added that staffers are generally willing to fight rather than give in.
“I don’t hear from people saying, ‘Why is the Guild holding us up?’” the reporter said. “I just don’t see how we get out of this. I don’t see how this ends well.”