Middle Man  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 2001

Middle Man   

When longtime Seattle Times reporter Ross Anderson went on strike in November, he found himself at odds with a paper he loved, a wife he loved (a nonunion editor at the paper) and a Guild he was ambivalent about. As he struggled to make sense of it all, Anderson kept notes of his experiences.

By Ross Anderson
     

Related reading:
   » Seattle Strikes Out
   » Seattle Strife


--11: 30 p.m., November 20, 2000--
The institutional halls and corridors of the King County Labor Temple are inhabited by the ghosts of passionate, hard-edged unionism. Here lurk the militant souls of Teamsters, Longshoremen and the "Wobblies," the turn-of-the-century radicals who crusaded for global revolution.
In 30 years at the Seattle Times, I've spent many hours in the damp outside the main doors of the Labor Temple, quizzing union members in their nylon windbreakers as they leave: Strike or no strike? How do you feel about that?
Tonight, however, I walk past the TV cameras, through those heavy doors and weave into the seething assemblage of my own union. Perhaps 500 Newspaper Guild members, about half the membership, are already engaged in a debate that leaders preferred not to have at all. They had planned on a strike declaration against the Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer, and a march to the picket lines. Instead, I listen as my friends take their turns at the microphone, pleading for a couple more days to cool off.
My colleague and friend Lynda Mapes speaks calmly into the microphone. "I have not been involved in my union, and for this I apologize," she says. "But I really think we need time..."
"NO WAY!" shouts the man next to me, his fist clenched in the air. His anger ricochets around the room. "We already voted! Time to walk!"
I turn and ask him to listen. He glares back with utter contempt.
So it goes for 45 minutes, until somebody forces a vote: The hands raised for extending the strike deadline come mostly from clusters of reporters. But the room, dominated by circulation and advertising people, votes overwhelmingly against it.
I am on strike.
When I get home, I find my wife, Mary Rothschild, staring at the TV set with the sound turned down. Thirteen years ago, as a reporter at the P-I, she chaired a strike committee that came within minutes of taking out the Guild. Now she is a Times assistant metro editor (and not in the union), and she can't remember what she was thinking.
"It's going to be horrible," she says. I know.
We set some ground rules. Mary will support my decision to stay out--for the time being. I agree not to picket, nor work for the strike paper, which will be up and running within hours.
We don't sleep much.
Neither of us had believed this would happen. For weeks, the Times newsroom had been papered with fliers, newsletters and stickers that quickly blended into the newsroom clutter. There were Guild rallies outside the building, but we'd seen them before--saber rattling by a union that lost its teeth nearly a generation ago. Only in the last few days, when squads of black-clad security guards in heavy boots showed up around the building and the company began erecting cyclone fences, did we begin to take it seriously.
We liked our jobs. I had started in 1971 at $135 a week, moving gradually from general assignment grunt to graveyard cops, City Hall, politics, Washington, D.C., bureau, editorial board and finally into my dream job--writing about natural resources and regional character. After 17 years as a reporter at the competing Post-Intelligencer, Mary moved to the Times and became an editor.
During my tenure, I've watched the Times transformed from a gray, provincial dowager into a regional force with a national reputation. Over that time, we've won six Pulitzers and dozens more prizes, many of them for tackling local sacred cows such as Boeing and the oil industry. Much of that improvement has been attributed to Frank Blethen, the fifth- generation family patriarch who took over in 1985. Although the turnaround began long before Blethen arrived, he gets credit for efforts to make the paper a better place to work. There is the subsidized daycare center, a block from the main plant. The company voluntarily gave employees an extra holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. There are health benefits for same-sex partners, subsidized bus passes and an aggressive minority-recruiting program.
For many of us, these benefits offset the fact that wages and salaries did not keep up with rising housing costs. In the 1970s, the Times and P-I were among the nation's better-paying papers. But in the early '80s, the Times and P-I formed a joint operating agreement and adopted "pattern bargaining," meaning that when one of the 15 bargaining units agreed on a wage package, the other unions were forced to settle for the same. Other salary increases would come through a merit pay system based on annual performance reviews.
After backing down from a strike threat in 1987, union leaders vowed to fight another day. In 1997, the Guild merged with the broad-shouldered Communications Workers of America, providing the clout and financing. As the strike deadline approached, the Times insisted that pay increases had kept up with inflation. But that argument failed the straight-face test--especially in the light of 20 years of double-digit inflation in local housing costs. In the 1970s, a reporter could buy a house in Seattle for about a year's gross pay. Today, the median price of a house or condo is $230,000--five times the top Guild scale of about $45,000.
The Blethens are not responsible for the costs of housing, nor for the epidemic of showy affluence that has accompanied the rise of companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.com. But there it is. Recruiting of good reporters and editors has become increasingly difficult, as prospective hires measure salary offers against the reality.
Negotiations stalled over the weekend of November 18-19, with the newspapers offering a total of $3.30 per hour across the board over six years while the Guild demanded $3.25 over three years--essentially the same gap that had existed for five months. Newsroom members had written Frank Blethen, praising his journalistic courage and pleading for some movement. Blethen's response was a three-page e-mail to one reporter, asserting that the union's only goal was to go on strike. "To me it is a clear choice between supporting what the Blethen family has created...or choosing to support a cause led by people who don't care about the Seattle Times."
So, long before we showed up at the Labor Temple, the lines had been clearly drawn.

--D AY ONE, NOVEMBER 21 --
Mary arrives early, greets friends on the picket line and makes her way up to a near-empty newsroom that is clearly in a state of shock. The entire staff has been logged off both computer systems, rendering them unusable until technicians can log managers back on, one by one. So editors sit in clusters, speculating on which reporters will cross the picket line. By midday, only one newsroom reporter is back at work.
There had been weeks of meetings, contingency plans, briefings about violence during newspaper strikes in Detroit and San Francisco. There were detailed preparations for which editors would take on which reporting duties, for chauffeured vans to move people across picket lines. Still, no one was prepared for this.
Mary heads down to the county courthouse to renew her reporting career. Meanwhile, I work with longtime friend Carol Ostrom to organize a meeting of the newsroom--particularly those who voted to extend the deadline last night. By 3 p.m., there are 50 reporters jammed into my living room. The mood is somber, almost funereal. I start off with a guarantee that the meetings are open to any point of view.
My perspective: I've spent 30 years helping turn the Times into a damn good newspaper, and I have no interest in helping dismantle it. I'm striking in hopes of finding a way to end the strike.
After two hours, reporter Lynda Mapes finally broaches the question nobody wants to touch: "How many of us are thinking about going back to work?" For 30 seconds or so, there is a furtive exchange of glances, but just a few tentative raised hands--including mine. No decision. Meet again tomorrow.
I get my call from Alex MacLeod, the managing editor and an old friend. His father hired me 30 years ago, mentored me, put me up in the basement room. But this is no friendly hello. It is the same blunt message being delivered to other newsroom employees: There will be no better offer from the company. Report back to work by 11:30 p.m. tonight, or don't expect to come back until the strike is over.
In Detroit, that was five years.
I hang up trembling--not from fear, but disillusionment. It's an ill-conceived strategy, trying to threaten professional journalists back to work. The situation is bleak. I have a union that is willing to kill my newspaper, and a newspaper that is willing to kill my union. And, for now, I don't want anything to do with either of them.

--D AY TWO, NOVEMBER 22 --
Striking newsies meet again. Bruce Meachum, of the Communications Workers of America, is the Guild's chief negotiator. He plops himself in my living room recliner while Times and P-I newsroom people pour through the door, depositing boxes of muffins and croissants on the dining room table.
Meachum is a stocky Coloradan who got his initiation into labor negotiations in 1981 as an air-traffic controller fired by President Ronald Reagan in one of the most infamous strikes of recent years--a dubious résumé for our little strike.
We have prepared a list of questions, including: Why should we care about the union?
For starters, Meachum says, the Guild "defends professional ethics."
I utter something crude. He's touched a nerve. Twenty-some years ago, when I was active in the union, the Guild wanted nothing to do with our effort to draft an ethics code. Later, when the Times adopted a similar code, the union spent my dues money challenging it in court--unsuccessfully. I have not been to a union meeting since.
Back off, I'm told. Let Meachum say his piece.
He urges us to hang in there. "We're winning this strike." And then he hustles off to another meeting.
Our group has grown to about 100, including five Pulitzer winners, sports columnists, business writers and the entire political staff. We are not of one mind. The investigative reporters tend to be fiercely pro-strike, while the political reporters are more conflicted. My theory is that investigators see issues in clear blacks and whites, good guys and bad; political reporters are mired in the murky gray areas between them.
Lynda Mapes decides we should call ourselves the "Wobblies," an ironic reference to our radical forebears. But today we also include several gung-ho union leaders who hope to rein in the dissidents.
"We have issues," argues Keith Ervin, a quiet, hard-working reporter who is a member of the Guild bargaining committee. "We have suburban zone reporters and circulation people who have not prospered under PFP [pay for performance] as much as you have. This has become a company of haves and have-nots."
Ultimately, that argument carries the day. By noon, the Guild Faithful have rallied enough Wobblies to stage a newsroom show-of-force for the TV cameras in front of the Times. This is not what I had in mind.
Back at the Times, Mary continues to appreciate the good humor on the picket line. She can't enter or leave the building without being hugged, usually by somebody she'd rather not have hug her.

--D AY FOUR, NOVEMBER 24 --
The first incident on the line. A picket spits in the direction of an editor--my editor--as she enters the building. The culprit is rumored to be a disgruntled former employee, not a Guild member.
The first hard copy of the Union Record hits the streets. The product is a clean, readable rendition of what has been appearing on the unionrecord.com Web site. Frank Blethen is not impressed. When he learns the paper has been printed at the rival Eastside Journal in Bellevue, he fires off an e-mail to the publisher: "Fuck you to death. Your ex-friend Frank." Copies of the e-mail promptly circulate around the building and, inevitably, across the picket lines. Inside, the overworked editors find it amusing. Strikers do not.
The Eastside Journal declines to keep printing the paper, forcing the Guild to move further out of town--to a non-union shop.

--W EEK 2 --
(November 26 to December 2)
The strike begins to become a routine--on both sides of the line. Inside, Mary and the other editors grow accustomed to 12-hour days, empty desks, grim pickets and variations on dark newsroom humor. They hope reporters will cross the line, not so much for victory or principle, but just for some much-needed help. But, after a week, they still have just one reporter.
The picket lines grow haggard. The previous week's sun has given way to the usual November monsoons, and the pickets slog their rounds beneath Gore-tex hoods and garbage bags. Rain-spattered signs are tacked and taped on every available wall and fence, in the trees and in car windows.
Attitudes harden on both sides of the line. Journalists who last week showed appreciation for the newspaper now exhibit a growing bitterness--the result of hours on the picket lines or at the Union Record. Inside the building, editors increasingly resent the 12-hour workdays, insults from pickets and the circulation boycott being promoted by the union.
If the Union Record is looking better, so are the dailies that the Guild failed to shut down. The Sunday paper is reasonably fat, with three full news sections and lots of full-page ads.
About 10 p.m. Wednesday, Mary drags herself home in a state of near depression. "We're at the end of our rope in there," she groans. "Too much news, and no reporters."
She wants me to come back to work. "How can I be inside, and you outside, and both be right?"
Morality is situational. We do what we do in part because of our personal or professional status. That's why one group of principled people is inside, keeping the newspaper alive, while another set of principled people is outside, trying to keep their union alive. Neither of us made this strike. We're both trying to end it.

--W EEK 3 --
(December 3 to 9)
I'm groping for some tangible reason to be on strike. My brother puts me in touch with his friend Patrick Dolan, a former Jesuit and college professor who works with labor disputes around the country. The failings of my union are not important, Dolan says. No union should be expected to be any more virtuous or benevolent than any corporation.
"But there is a fundamental truth to unions. They provide a balance-of-power in companies where power must be balanced."
Author Bill Prochnau, a one-time Times political reporter, helps bring that basic truth home. Past strikers, he says, "set the stage for the elevation of an entire class of people into a fulfilling if not enriching economic life.... It is going to take a new union movement in the 21st century to remove the kind of disparity that makes billionaires out of a handful while they speak proudly of providing jobs to the masses at $9 an hour."
I knew this. But how does one weigh the value of unions against the value of a newspaper--especially a locally owned paper? Is there no way to address our hierarchy without inflicting permanent damage on our own newspaper?
The Wobblies meet again, but we've dwindled to about 30. Bruce Meachum attends, responding to a barrage of Wobbly e-mails demanding something to vote on. "We've heard that message loud and clear," Meachum says. "But if the offer is the same as the one we went out over, my recommendation is to not vote. We can't be throwing beachballs while they fire hardballs."
Mary staggers through the door at about 10 p.m. She's worked 13 hours, with one day off in three weeks. We should set the strike aside, but we don't.
"When you come back from those meetings, your voice changes," she says. "It's the ultimate groupthink. ŒI must obey the union. I must obey the union.' "
I don't obey the union. I'm not picketing, not working on the Union Record, not collecting strike benefits.
"But you're out. And you don't know why?"
I think I do. I hate the union. I hate the strike. But the issues are legitimate. I believe in collective bargaining, and that includes the right to strike.
"Even if it's a stupid strike?"
I think so. I revisit the arguments that sound increasingly like clichés: Collective bargaining. Rights of workers versus owners. Haves and have-nots.
"Platitudes!" she says. "Listen, we don't own that newspaper. We're just in there working our butts off trying to get it out every day." Reporters have come to believe they are entitled to their jobs, and to be paid more for performing them. But the fact is, we are all easily replaced, she says. "We can all walk away and Frank Blethen will find plenty of people willing to put out his newspaper."
I sleep on the sofa.

--W EEK 4 --
(December 10 to 16)
Mary has befriended Pedro, one of the black-clad security guards that strikers refer to as "jack-booted thugs." He is a Cuban-born 30-year-old who works these jobs around the country, witnessing other people's strikes. When he asks what striking reporters make, she tells him: About $50,000 on average. Pedro shakes his head. They don't know how good they've got it, he says.
Another hastily called Wobblies meeting. Linda Foley, the national Guild president, has agreed to answer our questions. As I scribble notes, a fellow reporter leans over my shoulder and asks why.
Habit, I whisper.
"You're writing down people's names. Why are you doing that?" So I can remember who said what.
"We know management is getting reports on these meetings," he says ominously. "What do you know about that?"
Right, I tell him. After every Wobblies meeting, I run down to the Times and tell Frank Blethen what everybody said. Is this what we've come to? "Lord of the Flies"? Reporter goes to meeting, takes notes, and therefore must be a spy?

--W EEK 5 --
(December 17 to 23)
Five days before Christmas, every striking Guild member receives The Letter from Times management.
"This is a painful letter to write," it reads. "We will now begin recruiting and hiring people to fill open newsroom jobs for which work is available. These individuals will be hired as permanent replacements."
The union e-mail circuit crackles with outrage, disappointment, pain. How can they do this? Isn't this illegal? Politicians and community leaders join the outcry. A dozen leading priests and preachers distribute a letter condemning the action.
Meanwhile, Pedro the Cuban "thug" calls Mary to say goodbye. He's going home for Christmas.

--W EEK 6 --
(December 24 to 30)
December 25
Christmas. Oh yes, that.
The Union Record closes down for a few days. The Times and P-I do not. The holiday paper arrives with a distinct thunk, jammed with full-page ads and color inserts, reminding us how easily we are replaced.

December 27
Guild members meet en masse at Seattle Center. The union strategy becomes what leaders had vowed would never happen: The P-I newsroom will vote separately on its contract offer. "It's risky, but we believe this will help us with the Times," Meachum says. "The P-I has a different agenda here. The Times are the bad guys. The P-I are the good guys."

December 28
The P-I newsroom approves its contract 88 to 29, and will go back to work next week. But its strike leaders call a press conference to express continuing support for Times strikers.
The speakers stand in front of two oversize poster boards labeled "Hall of Shame," with the names of picket-line crossers printed in block letters for the benefit of the TV cameras. The list includes coworkers I counseled, single moms, recent arrivals with no savings to fall back on. Their decisions to go back to work were as much acts of conscience as others' to stay out.
Later that day, there is another membership meeting at Seattle Center. The Times has formally informed the Guild that there will be downsizing in all departments--including 17 percent in circulation, 19 percent in advertising, 24 percent in the newsroom, and 35 percent of the editorial page. To soften the blow, the company will offer an enhanced early retirement package or severance pay. Everybody will be brought back to work within a year.
"Except 68 people who have been permanently replaced," says Meachum.
At his request, the 68 people stand grimly and face the rest of the union. Instantly, the collective outrage toward the company is redoubled. But as the vote begins, a couple of reporters double-check Meachum's facts. He's wrong. The company has guaranteed that those 68 people will be rehired--though not in the same jobs. The Guild cancels the vote and starts again.

December 29
Friday night, we're back in the same room. Meachum explains last night's snafu as a "legitimate misunderstanding." Meanwhile, the Times offer has been improved, he says. The company is offering to pay 75 percent of the health care plan--up from 66 percent. There is a three-year phaseout of the two-tier wage system that pays suburban reporters less, and upgrading of some job classifications.
But the bargaining committee remains unanimously opposed to the offer unless strikers are brought back sooner than a year. This time, the Wobblies line up at the microphone to make our case. "Folks, we've lost this fight," pleads editorial writer Casey Corr. "Let's fold up the tents and go back together."
Carol Ostrom warns that if the offer is rejected, "the company will go gung-ho for permanent replacements. They're angry. We're angry. They feel righteous. We feel righteous. It's time to end this thing."
The groans become boos and catcalls. Whole groups of circulation workers get up and walk out, shaking their heads.
I've heard enough. I cast my "yes" vote, storm out and deliver my opinion to the TV cameras. I won't be associated with this fight anymore. I drive home and compose my letter to the Guild, essentially quitting the union and vowing to go back to work.
The dam is breaking. And our union has to know it.

--W EEK 7 --
(December 31 to January 6)
The Times offer loses 348 to 87. I'm prepared to return to work. The only question is when. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has intervened. She's asked federal mediator Richard Barnes to convene a last-gasp session in her Washington, D.C., offices. Several friends ask me to wait a few more days before crossing. I agree--in part because I am equally irritated with the company's stubbornness. A pox on both their houses.

January 4
In the wee small hours of Thursday, the Times and the Guild agree to a tentative settlement. The major change? The Times promises to bring all striking workers back within six months. Chances are it will be within a matter of weeks.
It takes several days for the Guild to organize another vote. But this time it passes 3 to 1.
It's over.
The final edition of the Union Record is a collector's item, jammed with reporters and columnists explaining why it was all worth it. "It's the little things," writes Ron Judd, a Times sports columnist. "The way you touch people...the pride that swells inside when you see a colleague, someone you never expected to last, still standing.... Lord was it wonderful."
For Ron, perhaps. But for others, including the people like Mary, who kept our newspaper alive while their reporters walked the picket line, it was sheer hell. For people who made the agonizing decision to cross the picket line and go back to work, it was sheer hell. For people like me, who love newspapers and had to watch two good ones wounded terribly by our union, it was sheer hell. Careers were disrupted and ended, marriages tested, dreams postponed.
And for what? A few pennies per hour, a 9 percent improvement in the company medical plan.... And solidarity.
The papers may never recover. Times President Mason Sizemore won't discuss the losses, except to say they are in the many millions. Sunday circulation dropped below 500,000--an important threshhold in luring national ads. As many as 250 men and women, most of them Guild members, will lose their jobs to buyouts, early retirement or layoffs (see The Newspaper Business).
The Guild and CWA spent thousands more in strike costs--benefits, medical payments, rent, printing costs, lawyers.
The issues remain, cancerous and festering. In principle, the Guild was right. But there has to be a better way to fight this fight. Maybe it's profit-sharing, or binding arbitration. Maybe newspapers need to bring reporters or union reps onto corporate boards. Whatever that might be, it will require a genuine collaboration between workers and management, reporters and editors.
Anything to avoid repeating Seattle's experience.

January 12
I go back to work. About 20 of us sit through a welcome-back session. There is a firm briefing on the company's policy against any form of harassment--against strikers and crossers alike.
Then Frank Blethen stands up and speaks briefly to the people who had tried to dismantle his newspaper. His eyes are reddened and his voice quivers a tad. "We're moving on," he says.
Upstairs, I hug my friends, and several people who are not. I'm assigned to City Hall to cover a public hearing on a proposed electricity rate increase. I write that sucker onto page one.
It feels great.

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