Friday, May 23, 2008

Is the Washington Post Credible on Labor Issues?

Last Sunday, a Washington Post editorial slammed Montgomery County’s recently-passed budget as full of “sweetheart deals” for the county’s public employee unions. The week before, the Post ran an article by Ann Marimow titled “Union Influence Sways Budget Talks” during the middle of the County Council’s budget deliberations. And when the Post endorsed labor-backed Nancy Navarro during the District 4 County Council special election, they offered one caveat:

Ms. Navarro makes no bones about her alliance with labor, but we hope she will be sufficiently independent-minded to see that annual pay increases of 8 percent are simply not sustainable in the current budgetary environment.
These may not be disconnected events. In fact, they could be a product of the Washington Post’s long, contentious history with its own employees’ labor unions. Today we expose that history for our readers.

The Post’s labor difficulties date back at least to the early 1970s. At the time, two craft unions – the printers (who set type for the paper) and the pressmen (who ran the printing machines) – dominated the newspaper’s physical production. They occasionally abused their power with job actions, including a wildcat (unsanctioned) strike in 1973. The Post decided to fight back by introducing a new set of labor-saving photographic composition equipment, secretly training non-union workers to operate it in an Oklahoma City “scab school.” In 1975, the Post installed their new equipment in their headquarters, causing the printers and pressmen to walk out. But the pressmen sabotaged the new machines, set fire to one of them and viciously beat a manager on their way out, thus igniting a 139-day strike. Keeping the paper running with non-union labor, the Post eventually settled with the printers and permanently replaced the pressmen, crushing the latter union once and for all. Management’s experience with the violent, Luddite pressmen has shaped its labor philosophy ever since. (You can read accounts of this infamous strike here, here and here.)

Among the concessions secured by the Post from the rest of its now-intimidated unions was a two-tier wage scale. Current employees were given raises but the entry-level scale was not changed. As a result, new employees were often paid less than veterans even though they occupied the same positions and did the same work. Management made things worse by bumping up some new workers to veteran scale while not doing the same for others, a practice perceived by the workforce as reeking of favoritism. And the new, lower-paid workers were more likely to be minorities, adding a racial element to the tension.

In 1987, the Post declared a bargaining impasse with their reporters in the Newspaper Guild after 16 months of negotiation over this issue and others. Guild members retaliated with a “byline strike” during which they refused to allow their bylines to be used in their articles. The Post ignored the tactic and unilaterally imposed its terms on the union. The Newspaper Guild launched two more byline strikes in 2002 and was able to slightly improve the Post’s offer in that bargaining round.

The Post’s latest labor dispute involves its production workers, who are represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). When CWA’s contract expired in May 2003, the Post insisted on withdrawing from the union’s defined benefit pension plan. After five years of stalled bargaining and no pay increases, CWA struck back with a publicity campaign. The Post has also not renewed a labor agreement covering 26 electricians that expired last December.

Do the Post’s recurring labor problems affect its coverage? Ann Marimow’s article describing union influence over the county’s budget may have appeared during the critical final week of the County Council’s deliberations, but a few of her sources tell me that it was being prepared for at least two weeks prior. Some political actors in Rockville suspect that the timing of the article’s release (which is not controlled by Ms. Marimow) was deliberately designed to shape the outcome of the County Council’s budget decisions. That suspicion may not be justified but the very fact that it is regarded as credible at all is a big problem for the Post.

The Post’s tempestuous union history calls into question its impartiality on labor reporting, especially with regards to local labor issues. I am not an impartial source on labor myself. As a result, I frequently disclose to MPW readers: “The author is the Assistant to the General President of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.” Our readers should consider that fact when they read my reporting and opinion. Perhaps the Washington Post should issue a disclosure statement after every one of its articles on labor issues such as, “The Post is a unionized employer and has been party to numerous labor disputes over the years.” MPW readers have a right to disclosure. So too do readers of the Washington Post.