Despite the festering labor dispute, the Union and Tribune continue to prosper financially.
Marty Walsh settles into a metal chair inside the Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge in North Park and allows himself to savor some memories of the American newspaper business. Marty, now 62. toiled in the pressroom of the mighty Chicago Tribune, once the domain of the legendary Col. Robert McCormick, in an era Marty today finds painfully distant.
U-T pressroom, 1985. Twenty years ago a pressman could travel anywhere in America and find a well-paying job at a big daily newspaper.
"Colonel McCormick used to come out in the pressroom and shake hands. He would tell the pressmen, if you got a problem, you come and see me. If you got a ticket from a policeman, and it wasn't a fair ticket, they would straighten it out. you know? Somebody would get on the phone and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing to our people here?’ He took care of the people. It was a family."
Marty has to shout to make himself heard above the juke box in the lodge's dingy inner sanctum. A fellow Eagle, his legs crippled, drags himself past the table with a battered aluminum walker.
The U-T wants to gradually get rid of its youth carriers and rely instead on adult carriers in cars.
Despite Marty’s big-city bravado and 45 years as a faithful member of the pressmen’s union, he doesn’t seem entirely used to his new role as president of San Diego Local 432-M of the Graphic Communications International Union, the new name for his old pressmen’s international. His upset election this January came after no one else stepped forward to take on the incumbent, and it surprised even Marty himself.
“Being an American, I don’t like to see white ballots, okay? I thought somebody had to run against somebody, so I put my name on to run. I won by two or three votes at most.” Marty shrugs and runs his hand through his shock of white hair. “I didn’t do any campaigning.” The incumbent, Marty notes, went down to defeat on a single issue. “They voted against him because of how he handled the contract.”
Herb Klein: "I don’t think there are many other contracts in San Diego that have included a ten percent increase.”
These days, Marty works for the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has been fighting with the labor unions that represent the bulk of its employees. Marty’s 120 or so fellow union members went without a contract for 15 months before signing a new labor agreement with the U-T last October. The mailers’ union, which represents about 100 people who stuff advertising inserts into each Union and Tribune, also concluded an agreement two months later.
Reception for Jim Copley, 1965. When it came to his newspapers and his people, Jim Copley was mostly a soft touch.
San Diego Historical Society - Union Tribune Collection
The Newspaper Guild, which claims to represent most of the 1150 reporters, advertising sales people, and circulation employees at the U-T’s Mission Valley plant, has failed to obtain a contract after almost two years of bargaining. The typographers’ union, which negotiates on behalf of about 80 composing-room workers, is in the same situation.
But according to Marty, the pressmen’s new contract gave away so much that the workers would have been better off with nothing at all. The deal was so lousy, he insists, that it touched off bitter resentment among the workers and led to his election as union president. “We have a contract now, but it's not a contract. We lost our security clause” — the union shop.
Jim Copley, 1954 (second from right). Union-Tribune publisher Jim Copley inherited the growing Copley newspaper chain from his adoptive father, Col. Ira Copley, in 1947.
San Diego Historical Society - Union Tribune Collection
The pressmen, he notes, also agreed to cross the picket lines of other labor unions at the plant should those unions ever go out on strike. “That’s another thing I think that’s in the contract, that you’re not supposed to deal or mingle with other unions; but that’s taking away from the rights of an American!” He shifts violently forward in his seat and brings both hands down hard on the table. Marty claims the representative from the union’s Washington headquarters gave his local bum advice during negotiations.
"America today to me is ‘the easy way out,’ okay? He came down here, and he has other places to go, and so he instructed them that this was the way things were goin’ throughout the United States, and they would be probably best to pursue this contract and get it wrapped up, and the body bought it."
Helen Copley, Richard Silberman. Tuck claimed that Helen Copley was “apparently determined to force a strike to wipe out the union"
Marty claims that notices for a meeting one night last autumn with the union representative didn't mention that the contract would be up for a vote at the same time, and so he skipped the event. ‘‘Now, if they’d had other people at that meeting, there would have been a lot of challenges made, okay?” He says he wishes he’d been there to confront the representative from the international. “He must have overseed ’em and pumped ’em up to get this contract ratified. The only reason I feel I got into office is that there was a lot of people that were dissatisfied with it, and like I said, they didn’t vote for me, they just voted against [the contract]."
Ed Jahn: "We spent a year with an international rep who just told us to stall."
An early '50s pop song begins to blare from the juke box, and some of the lodge members start to shout and pound the bar, forcing Marty to raise his voice again. “I don’t think there was anybody who liked the contract. The only thing that they liked was that they know they got a job for three more years, and they can make their payments and survive for three more years.” But now, Marty says, “A lot of their attitude is, what’s going to happen in three years?"
Ed Jahn, Cesar Chavez, Ed Asner. Asner joined Cesar Chavez of the farm workers’ union at a rally urging subscribers to boycott the Union-Tribune.
The question lingers in his tired eyes before giving way to fleeting thoughts of a kinder past. “My father was a pressman, my two brother-in-laws were pressmen. I come from a family of being in the pressroom. I’ve seen a tremendous change. First of all, newspapers went from family-owned to business, okay? Newspapers today are no longer like a family. They’re just like anywhere else. You’re just a number to them, an android, okay?”
The din at the bar grows louder, but Marty ignores it. He lifts his arms above his head in an awkward gesture of frustration. Twenty years ago, he says, a pressman could travel anywhere in America and find a well-paying job at a big daily newspaper, but things are different now. Newspapers are closing and consolidating, there is fierce competition for the remaining work, and the old combative spirit is gone from organized labor.
“I see the younger generation, they would rather live with something than to fight for something, that’s all I can say.” He shakes his head at the futility of ever calling another strike against a newspaper company. His members are now solidly entrenched in the middle class, with fat mortgages and Mastercard bills to pay. “They are entrapped in a situation, and they see that they’ll lose everything."
Like Marty Walsh, Herb Klein, editor in chief of the Copley newspaper chain, also remembers the golden era of American daily newspapers. And he says that the grand old business of Colonel McCormick, E.W. Scripps, William Randolph Hearst, and Jim Copley will never be the same. Klein sits in a comfortable upholstered chair in his penthouse office in Mission Valley, surrounded by the memorabilia of a life of service to the Copley newspapers and his time as chief of White House public relations under Richard Nixon, from 1969 to 1973.
The black-and-white wire service photos on his wall chronicle the history of the Cold War. Khrushchev and Nixon during one of their famous téte-á-tétes during the late '50s. Nixon and Kissinger in China. A certificate of appreciation from members of the White House staff, marking Klein’s return to private life in California. That was during the dark days of Watergate, when Nixon was once recorded on a secret White House tape growling: “[Klein] doesn’t have his head screwed on. You know what I mean? He just opens it up and sits there with egg on his face. He's just not our guy at all, is he?”
Today, at age 71, Klein has been designated sole spokesman for the company during its labor problems. His boss, publisher Helen Copley, 67, and the company president, Helen's son David, 38, do not take phone calls. The usually opinionated editors of the Union and Tribune somberly refer all queries to the avuncular Klein, who paints a picture of severe tests to come for the paper and its employees.
“We think we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout to increase our circulation and increase our sales to meet the competitive situation. It comes from the Los Angeles Times being here, and it comes from increased growth in suburban dailies, like in Oceanside and Escondido. So, competition is something you’ve got to look at, and if you don’t, you are not going to be around. If you're going to publish a newspaper, you’ve got to make a profit. If you don’t, you go out of business.”
Labor costs represent a special problem, he says, requiring greater management flexibility. “When we bring in a new employee, we got to figure not only what his salary is going to be, but we have to figure the cost of all the other aspects, including social security, which has gone up. Your cost per unit is considerably higher [than before].”
“In the past, the company has given away a lot of things which we [now] think are necessary to manage," Klein says. "One thing I think is different is that Mrs. Copley made a decision that if we are to properly manage these papers, we need some of the management rights.”
Union-Tribune publisher Jim Copley inherited the growing Copley newspaper chain from his adoptive father, Col. Ira Copley, in 1947. By 1969 he was following through on big plans for expansion. With Nixon in the White House, Copley felt he was poised on the brink of a bold new era, both for America and the Copley Press. When Klein, then editor of the San Diego Union; Gerald Warren, then Union assistant managing editor, now editor; and two other Copley newspaper executives departed San Diego for Washington at the beginning of Nixon’s first term in 1969, the company newsletter proudly headlined the news: “Four Copleymen resign to take Washington posts.”
Jim Copley heralded these appointments as confirmation of the papers’ and his own management ability. “The great pride we feel in these men — the great credit they reflect on the Copley organization — is difficult to express. I am proud of the team which produces players of such quality."
Over the years, and especially after buying his brother out of the business in 1959, following settlement of a nasty family fight, Copley had not hesitated to place his firm personal stamp on the newspapers. He filled their pages with conservative news and the opinions of the American Right.
Foreign policy was his forte, and through the darkest days of the Cold War, the papers continually warned of the menace of Communism, liberalism, and the excesses of organized labor. San Diego Democrats, like television commentator, later congressman, Lionel Van Deerlin, frequently attacked the papers for what they claimed was opinion disguised as news. A critical 1970 article in San Diego Magazine, by its editor and publisher Ed Self, was so pointed that it prompted Copley to cancel his subscription.
But despite his editorial views, Jim Copley adopted a paternalistic stance towards his own workers. According to his official biography, Copley provided “a liberal retirement plan for the 2000-plus employees, and also another plan — a pioneering one, still, at the time — for their protection from major medical costs. Editor and Publisher, ‘the newspaper of the newspaper business,’ noted that Copley publications had a national reputation as a ‘friendly employer.’ ” Under Jim Copley, there was never a strike and rarely even an unkind word between management and labor at the Union-Tribune.
When it came to his newspapers and his people, Jim Copley was mostly a soft touch, favoring growth and expansion, no matter what the cost. It was, after all, a family-owned business, and he did not have to worry about the shareholders. “If we give away a little of our market, year by year, because it is too expensive to produce for that market, we may be slowly starving a giant,” he once proclaimed. “Inevitably we would be creating a corpse, or a newspaper figure of such diminished size as to jeopardize the meaning of a free press."
Copley’s free spending reached its zenith when he bought the financially troubled Sacramento Union in 1964, just one year before he married his second wife, Helen Kinney Hunt. Copley and his conservative allies, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, had always begrudged the Sacramento Bee, owned by the liberal McClatchey family, its influence at the center of California politics. Under Copley ownership, the Sacramento Union set out to provide a counterweight to the Bee. especially during the tenure of Governor Ronald Reagan, from 1966 to 74, when many prominent San Diegans flocked to the state capital to serve the new administration. Though it may have succeeded in its ideological mission, the paper quickly became a financial albatross for the rest of the chain.
At this time, cities with more than one daily newspaper operation were becoming rare, and try as he might, Jim Copley could not make the venture work. Though he poured millions into improving the plant and its equipment, the paper's circulation never broke 100,000, and the Bee continued to dominate the Sacramento market.
The diminutive publisher died of cancer in 1973, iii the midst of the Watergate scandal and on the very day that a highly automated new Union-Tribune plant in Mission Valley printed its first editions. Copley's widow Helen faced the daunting prospect of paying inheritance taxes and began reining in both Jim’s excessively expensive newspaper ventures and a few of his executives who mistakenly assumed that they, not the publisher’s demure young widow, would run the Copley Press.
In a celebrated visit to the newsroom of the San Diego Union in 1975, Helen announced to a boisterous gathering of editorial employees the end of the days of Copley's "sacred cows" — institutions such as Republican banker C. Amholt Smith and the San Diego Zoo, which under Jim had been exempt from the paper’s scrutiny. Henceforth, she said, the papers would be run in a modem, professional way.
The money-losing Sacramento Union was quickly unloaded, and the overreaching executives were eased out of the company. New West magazine later reported that Helen ultimately laid off over 600 employees and slashed the company’s payroll by $2 million a year. But much of the bloodletting came at the company’s subsidiary ventures, such as its management consulting group and the now-defunct film production unit.
What followed were years of power and glory for the Union and Tribune. Young, ambitious Pete Wilson was elected mayor of San Diego in 1971, consolidated his grasp on city hall, and ultimately marched into the United States Senate in 1982 with the help of avid support from the two papers. Talented Union city hall reporter Otto Bos joined Wilson’s staff and quickly became one of his key political strategists. Helen’s social circle also grew to include then-councilwoman Maureen O’Connor, a close friend who received unqualified Union-Tribune editorial support in her mayoral election bids.
O’Connor’s political enemies, on the other hand, could expect no mercy from either the Union or the Tribune. When then San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock ran for re-election in April of 1984, the Union broke a front-page story strongly suggesting he might soon be charged with illegally concealing thousands of dollars in secret bank accounts. The story turned out to be untrue, and four months later, Hedgecock’s lawyers forced the paper to run an embarrassing front-page retraction. When voters subsequently returned Hedgecock to office by a healthy margin, some observers said it was due in part to a backlash from the newspaper’s all-too-obvious efforts to defeat him. Perhaps, Hedgecock backers asserted, the days of the U-T mixing fact and opinion in its news columns had not been laid entirely to rest. But such setbacks seemed trivial to a powerful paper in one of California’s richest, fastest-growing cities.
If Helen Copley had inherited Jim’s penchant for playing politics with the two dailies, she also continued his benevolent approach with her employees. Each year, grateful reporters trooped out to La Casa del Zorro, the Copley-owned desert resort in Borrego Springs, to take advantage of half-price summer rates reserved for employees only. They also attended a lavish banquet there each year to accept ‘‘Ring of Truth” awards, in-house Pulitzer-style prizes given by the company for stories that the editors deemed particularly worthy.
And the Tribune won two real Pulitzer Prizes, something that had never happened in Jim’s day, when the Eastern journalistic establishment regarded him with disdain. The first was for the paper’s 1978 coverage of the crash of a passenger jet in North Park and the other, just two years ago, for a series of editorials about the need to reform U.S. immigration laws. From all outward appearances, the future of the company and its placid force of largely middle-class workers seemed filled with promise. The thought of a strike, or even the idle threat of one, was simply absurd.
One night last August, a group of Tribune reporters got together at a house in Golden Hill to say good-bye to one of their colleagues. By then it was clear that negotiations between the company and their union, the Newspaper Guild, were not going smoothly. Three years before, in 1986, reporters had not paid much attention when the company hired a law firm from the South to handle the upcoming talks for a new contract to replace the one that would expire in June of 1988.
But by the time of that farewell party in Golden Hill, tensions were rising. Not only had there been no quick contract settlement as there had been in the past, but both the company and the guild were embroiled in bitter, if arcane, legal disputes before the National Labor Relations Board.
In March of 1988, the company had filed a so-called unit clarification petition asking the NLRB to exclude about 40 job categories, such as office managers and various sub-editors, from representation by the guild on the grounds they were actually management positions. Volumes of testimony from some of the 250 employees who held the affected jobs piled up at NLRB's downtown San Diego offices as the hearings dragged on.
In June of 1989, the Newspaper Guild countered with an unfair labor practices charge against the company, alleging that the U-T had failed to bargain in good faith and had illegally dismissed a certain employee for engaging in union activities. The regional NLRB office investigated the allegations and issued a complaint against the U-T, accusing it of violations of the NLRB Act. Hearings on the merits of those charges have become a lengthy affair, with final resolution probably many years away.
As party goers in Golden Hill that summer dug into a plastic trash barrel filled with crushed ice and bottles of Mexican beer, the Tribune reporters, most of them members of the reasonably affluent post-war generation that had grown up in the ’60s and ’70s, seemed unlikely combatants in an old-fashioned battle between labor and management. Under previous contracts, reporters’ weekly salaries at the U-T had climbed from a top minimum of $205.75 in 1970 to $750.00 in 1989, according to the Newspaper Guild. That 20-year increase of $544.25 was about $100 per week higher than the guild's national average of $458.51.
By comparison, the New York Times pays a minimum $1053, the New York Daily News $926.28, and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin $783.56. Major papers with minimums lower than the U-T, according to guild figures, include the Seattle Times at $703.35 and the Sacramento Bee at $649. The guest of honor at the party had accepted a job at the San Jose Mercury-News, where the weekly minimum was $801.04.
Guild activists contended that their drawn-out dispute with the company over the new contract was driving many reporters and editors to find jobs elsewhere, thus threatening the quality of the newspapers. Others at the party argued that those who left had simply gone on to better career opportunities, with the labor dispute having only a marginal role.
As the discussion heated up around midnight, a former Tribune reporter who had been promoted to assistant managing editor — an important, well-paid management post at any newspaper — quietly slipped away from the party. Later that morning, he was due at the U-T plant in Mission Valley to help the company put out a test version of the newspaper, without the services of union members. If any of its workers went out on strike, the company warned, the U-T was prepared to publish without them. “They’re running a scab paper tonight,” one of the other guests noted quietly.
Both the company and the Newspaper Guild blame outsiders for inflaming passions and dragging out the talks over a new contract; negotiations are now into their third year. The U-T’s Herb Klein takes special aim at Channel 10 anchorman Michael Tuck and his nightly editorial commentaries, aired on the 11:00 news. Last December, after guild members voted to authorize a strike (that ultimately was not called), Tuck claimed that Helen Copley was “apparently determined to force a strike to wipe out the union. Her henchmen have stashed potential strikebreakers at the Town & Country Hotel to take over the minute regular workers walk out.” The anchorman also asserted that Copley was “personally worth $865 million and counting," implying that she was greedy for not settling with the guild.
Klein says that after the commentary aired, the company received a personal letter of apology to Copley from Tuck’s boss. Ed Quinn. Quinn confirms that he sent the letter, though he says the apology doesn’t mean he or the station is taking sides in the labor dispute or that he questions Tick's facts. Argues Klein, "The more hard-line agitation you throw into it, or emotions, it’s harder to not have people react or counterreact in just human terms."
But guild members say they have no other way of communicating directly with Copley, who owns the vast majority of stock in the papers and negotiates through a team of lawyers. Especially during the past 15 months or so, as talks dragged on and tensions rose, the guild has escalated its attacks on the publisher. Bumper stickers have appeared announcing that “Helen Copley May Be Hazardous to Your Health." The guild has deployed bus bench advertising, banners towed from airplanes, and display ads in the Reader in an attempt to pressure the publisher into a settlement.
A news release in behalf of the guild’s cause. issued by San Diego publicist Nikki Symington, struck the hardest blows: “Mrs. Copley was... romantically involved with Richard Silverman [sic], former chief of staff to California Governor Jerry Brown and prominent San Diego businessman, who was recently indicted in a drug money laundering sting.” The release foiled to note that the liaison between Copley and Richard Silberman reputedly happened about ten years ago, well before the financier's current problems with the law. He is now married to county Supervisor Susan Golding, a union that reportedly infuriated Copley.
The Symington release also highlighted the “bitter struggles” in the 1970s between Helen and the two adoptive children of Jim Copley (from a former marriage) over the siblings’ courtroom attempt to get a piece of the Copley newspaper empire. “All were essentially disinherited to the second Mrs. Copley’s benefit,” the release said.
“I think they are being very unfair to Helen Copley, digging into her personal life,” Klein insists. “She built this company as a strong company from the time she inherited it.” The guild, on the other hand, believes the publisher is fair game, though she has virtually disappeared from public view during the last six months.
“She owns the newspaper. She owns the company. The company is called the Copley company,” says Jim Griffin, a Washington-based representative of the international Newspaper Guild who is assigned here to run negotiations with the U-T. “For Mrs. Copley to say that she’s somehow offended that she would be mentioned by the guild or any of the people who are helping the guild seems very strange, given that her newspaper profits off articles that mention people by name and attack some people by name.”
Klein also objects to the recent appearance of television personality Ed Asner of Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant fame in behalf of the guild. Last month, Asner joined Cesar Chavez of the farm workers’ union and San Diego-area politicos like Democratic Assemblyman Steve Peace and City Councilman Bob Filner at a rally urging subscribers to boycott the Union-Tribune.
Filner announced he would henceforth bar "scab reporters" from his city hall offices, and Peace used the opportunity to lambaste Copley friend Maureen O’Connor, a nominal Democrat who has remained above the U-T labor fray. Observes Klein, “Filner has not been an admirer of the Union and the Tribune anytime in his career. You had some politicians and outsiders there who actually knew nothing about the issues, and they were taking a political side rather than a side based upon any kind of reasoned determination."
But to the Newspaper Guild and the other unions at the Union-Tribune, the real outside agitator is a firm of flashy Nashville lawyers by the name of King & Ballow. The attorneys have acquired a reputation among the thinning ranks of American daily newspaper publishers for down-and-dirty fights with organized labor. Bob Ballow is reputed by union partisans to wear alligator boots and have a taste for fine brandy. “They are the closest thing to neo-Nazism that I have ever run across in this country as far as negotiating with people!" shouts Marty Walsh, president of the San Diego pressmen's local, pounding the table for emphasis.
Though Ballow did not return telephone calls for this story, last fall he boasted of his legendary contempt for organized labor in an interview for the newspaper trade publication Presstime. Labor unions, he said, "do it just like they did in the 18th Century. They’re not willing to make adjustments to changes in the times and circumstances, and that’s one reason the labor movement in all the industries is dying.”
Of the Newspaper Guild’s repeated charge that Ballow’s firm has made a legal specialty of “busting” newspaper unions, he was quoted as saying, “Ronald Reagan was called a ’union buster,’ and that’s pretty good company. I’ve never known any lawyer who effectively represented management clients whom they didn’t call a ‘union buster.’ That’s just par for the course, and it doesn't bother me at all. In fact, it probably gets me a lot of business.”
Guild representative Jim Griffin says such remarks only confirm the hatred and suspicion that the guild has for Copley management and Ballow. “What King & Ballow is practicing is the scorched-earth theory,” he claims. “Give your client the most aggressive representation that you can give them, and you do that in a way that just slaughters your opponents. The problem is that those opponents are your employees, and the earth that you are scorching is not earth that you can afford to lie fallow."
What almost everyone seems to agree on, though, is that with the help of King & Ballow, the company has been winning big at the bargaining table. After the pressmen and mailers accepted contracts late last year calling for open shops and even agreed to cross picket lines if the Newspaper Guild struck, Griffin says that his union had little choice but to offer major concessions of its own to management.
The guild agreed to surrender the union-shop provision of its proposal, notes Griffin, if the company would sign a three-year contract with certain other concessions to the union regarding circulation department work conditions. That package was ultimately rejected by the company, and Griffin says that the guild has gone back to insisting on a union shop in its current talks with management.
“If you are represented by a union, that union should be able to compel you to share the cost of that representation,” says Griffin, in defense of the closed shop. “We would not require anyone to be a member of the union, even if there was a union shop. That’s illegal in the United States. But you can require people to share the cost of representation, and that’s what the issue is."
Still, Griffin admits that the compulsory union dues provision may yet be negotiated away, largely because of the prior agreements by the other unions. "The pressmen settled without it. The mailers settled without it. Where you see the trend is clear, you have to consider giving it up. The question was, could we live with the status quo a while longer and come back to fight again another day for it.
“Do we wish the pressmen hadn’t settled? Of course. Do we wish that the pressmen and the mailers were there at the time that our strike [threat] was present? Yes, we do wish that had happened." Griffin attributes the lack of solidarity to what he calls San Diego’s “conservative” political climate.
Pressman Walsh also blames labor itself. “Probably one of the biggest things why unions are in the state they are in today is because of egos, okay? Everybody wants to be a chief, and nobody wants to be an Indian, all right?" Walsh also wishes that the leaders of his international were a better match for the negotiating prowess Helen Copley apparently has at her disposal. “I think we need a special team just to go in with King & Ballow.”
Infighting has plagued the Newspaper Guild as well. A ticket led by the guild's current president, Ed Jahn, replaced a previous guild administration two years ago. “The old order never had to face King & Ballow. In fact, all they did was set us up for this kind of situation, then they danced," Jahn complains. “Those people have been invisible for the past two or three years. They haven’t had the guts to come in and try to lift a finger to try to help the situation, so fuck them.”
Jahn, a usually affable reporter, says he has become tense and embittered during the prolonged contract negotiations. He says he resents attacks from some guild members who blame him for not settling earlier, especially those dissidents who have not participated in the guild's so-called “by-line strike” called late last year after continuing talks with the company proved fruitless. “Where are those assholes now? They are the people who are using their by-lines and resigned and aren’t paying their dues. Yeah, if they feel so strongly about the guild, where the hell are they?"
The current guild president also voices differences with the leadership of the union's international in Washington, several of whom were previously associated with the San Diego local before Jahn’s team took over. According to Jahn, the guild international had been less than supportive of his local's efforts to come to terms with the company. "The way they play their political games. The way the hierarchy there has jerked us around. They ought to be in here with a hit squad saying we're going to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you." Insists Jahn, "We spent a year with an international rep who just told us to stall, his theory was ... just outwait the Union-Tribune."
According to Jim Griffin, most of the difficulties cited by Jahn have since been resolved. "I don’t think there was any doubt, no matter who you talk to, that the union was complacent at the beginning. They said let's see if this paternal attitude that the owners have taken towards the employees doesn’t manifest itself sooner or later. I don’t think there is any doubt now that that has worn off, and people now believe there needs to be a more activist approach."
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the Newspaper Guild, unlike other bargaining units at the U-T plant, represents a broad array of employees, including janitors, advertising sales people, circulation workers, as well as reporters. Each has separate needs and expectations for any eventual contract settlement.
The company also holds strong economic cards. Newspaper Guild members haven't had a pay raise in the 18 months since their contract ran out. Adding to the pain, they're also forced to pay $81 out-of-pocket for monthly health insurance premiums that used to be entirely covered by the U-T; the fees are expected to increase this month. That growing financial burden, according to Ed Jahn, is one reason why fewer than 600 guild members, out of a potential 1150 or so, are currently paid up on their dues.
"Yeah, sure, numbers are down, just because of the continuing costs," Jahn says. “New people do sign up, but you can imagine the reluctance of some of them, given the whole battle that is going on. The newcomers feel, ‘I’m on some kind of probation, and I don’t want to be seen as a “Lib" or a “Red" or a flag-waving organizer type,’ but we still have a heck of a local.”
The guild’s Griffin also observes that the company no longer deducts union dues directly from employee paychecks, as it did under the old contract. The union is currently suing the company in an attempt to restore the practice.
But how long can the guild and its financially strapped members hold out with the company's Herb Klein dangling the prospect of a sizable raise in front of them if they agree to a one-year contract? “I don’t think you can consider a ten-percent wage increase a position of greed," says Klein of the company’s latest offer. “Particularly at a time when you look across the country. Some newspapers are asking employees to take pay cuts. I don’t think there are many other contracts that have been signed in San Diego in the last two or three years that have included a ten percent increase.”
Griffin responds that the raise would be phased in over a two-year period and would not be retroactive. He also says that the guild has more to worry about than just short-term pay prospects. U-T management, Jahn points out, has tied its salary offer to acceptance by the union of a one-year contract, along with special concessions demanded of circulation employees. The guild feels these demands may be a harbinger of wrenching changes to come.
Circulation workers presently drive company-provided vans to carry newspapers to drop-off points, where “youth carriers” — paper-boys and girls — pick them up for delivery. Now, however, the U-T wants to gradually get rid of its youth carriers and rely instead on adult carriers in cars. “It’s more and more difficult to recruit kids to carry the routes,” says the company’s Klein, adding that the new system is widely employed throughout the American newspaper industry.
“We can better serve our customers if we decentralize our distribution,” according to Klein, who notes that the U-T has already begun to build the first of ten regional “distribution centers” to support the plan. “We can take the papers off the dock in big trucks and haul them to the regional area.”
The new system appears to have particular importance, especially when considered alongside plans already announced by the U-T to build a satellite printing plant on nine acres it owns in San Marcos and recent reports that the company will soon purchase 50 acres on Kearny Mesa. According to the San Diego Business Journal. the U-T is considering moving its entire operation out of Mission Valley and may relocate at the Kearny Mesa site, closer to the affluent, fast-growing northern portion of the county.
Because of these changes, the U-T wants its circulation managers, who are represented by the Newspaper Guild, to begin using their own vehicles, rather than company-supplied vans. The issue has developed into a major snag in the talks, according to Griffin, with the guild holding out for a better expense reimbursement agreement.
Griffin says he’s also concerned about the one other big sticking point in the bargaining: the company’s insistence on limiting the contract to one year, at which time negotiations on a new agreement would have to begin all over again. "Most contracts are three-year contracts. The pressmen agreed to a three-year contract, the mailers agreed to a three-year contract. It’s not just a pattern locally, that’s the pattern nationwide.” In light of the guild's other concessions to management, Griffin says that "the burden should be on the company to say why that three years isn’t acceptable.”
The U-T’s Klein observes that the company has at times offered to accept up to an 18-month contract, but he becomes cryptic when describing why management won’t agree to a full three-year term. "We think there are still some factors in our relationship that, after we’ve had a year under this kind of contract, need to be renegotiated. I don’t think I want to get into what factors.”
Some say the company’s position on the one-year-only contract confirms suspicions that Helen Copley wants the guild out of the plant entirely and that a short-term contract is a step in that direction. When asked whether the Union-Tribune would be better off without labor unions, Klein replies: “I think it depends in some ways on how responsible the union is.” And, he quickly adds, his opinion of the Newspaper Guild is not high. “I’m disappointed in them, in some of the things that they are doing, which I think only hurt themselves, really, and don’t contribute to getting the contract issue resolved." Asked for particulars, Klein singles out the subscription boycott launched by the guild earlier this year. "It’s hard for me to see somebody being paid by a company and going out telling people to stop buying their product.”
Griffin counters that the guild is entitled to muster whatever force it can against the company during the labor dispute. “That is the history of conflict between labor and capital, isn’t it? At some point, some leverage needs to be brought to bear. We would wonder why the company would continue to institute pay cuts in the form of increased health insurance costs on the very people who produce their product at a time when they have record profits.”
Though Klein denies it, the guild's Griffin claims to have internal circulation figures that show the boycott is exacting a toll. “A newspaper that should be up 7500 in circulation over last year is down 7500. That’s a 15,000 swing in circulation, and that’s come in the time since this labor dispute has started.”
Some in the guild, including president Jahn, have suggested that the company may soon consolidate the evening Tribune and the morning Union into one so-called “24-hour” paper (morning and evening papers under the same masthead). In that scenario, company management would want a short contract in order to begin the resulting massive layoffs as early as 1991.
The suggestion of such a retrenchment here. however, brings a vehement denial from Klein. “That’s strictly out of Ed Jahn's hat. In the first place, even if we were going to do it, he wouldn’t have any knowledge of it in any way. You can’t say forever and forever, but it’s certainly not a part of our discussions during this negotiation.”
Despite the festering labor dispute, which most observers both in and outside the company say has clearly damaged worker morale, there seems little doubt that both the Union and Tribune continue to prosper financially. “They are picking up more work than — it’s unbelievable," says Marty Walsh, who has firsthand knowledge of the plant’s production volume. "They put color on both sides of the paper, they put color on the jackets that they wrap the inserts. I haven’t seen a slow time, really. I don’t think this newspaper is hurting for advertising money.”
It is the future, however, that many in the American newspaper industry are worried about. For example, ten years ago the San Diego Union claimed a daily circulation of about 196,000 countywide. By the end of 1988, that figure had grown by about 60,000 to 255,000, according to data supplied by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. But in the meantime, the number of households in the area has increased by almost 180,000 (from 662,400 to 840,000), meaning that the newspaper has failed to keep pace with the region’s buoyant economic growth. The evening Tribune is in even worse condition, actually posting a 3300 circulation loss, down to 121,000 in 1988 from 124,000 in 1980. Advertisers who pay top dollar for newspaper space seek as much penetration of area households as they can get. Based on Audit Bureau of Circulation figures for the U-T’s combined daily circulation, that penetration fell from 48 percent in 1980 to 45 percent in 1988. During that time, however, circulation for the Sunday Union has increased.
Nationally, the statistics are even worse. While the number of daily newspapers has declined, circulation remains flat, while circulation of weekly papers, especially those in the suburbs and certain specialty vehicles, is climbing. And since television and radio remain strong competitors for advertising dollars, the daily papers find themselves caught in the middle.
But Klein says that the U-T’s forthcoming investment in its new plant and distribution network proves Helen Copley’s commitment to the future. “I think it’s a tribute to her that she’s given us the resources to expand our coverage. And we have plans not only for the distribution centers, but for other modernization techniques which will enable us to do even more as we grow.” That’s why, Klein insists, the labor unions will have to compromise, “to leave some leeway so that as new techniques come into the business, we can deal with them and take advantage of them.”
The Newspaper Guild’s Jim Griffin asserts that new machines alone are not the answer to the problem of circulation erosion. “The real answer to competing with the Los Angeles Times is to put more money into the product, the writers, and people who we represent who sell ads and deliver newspapers on time. The answer to market penetration is better news coverage.”
Whatever the future holds, though, pressman Marty Walsh can’t help but long for the days of the past, for the glory days of the Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. “After the colonel died, there was no longer a paper that was fighting for individuals or their rights. It now became a mass, money-making item for the people that were running it. That’s all they cared about. They no longer cared about people.”
Matt Potter, a reporter for the Tribune from 1978 to 1981, was a political consultant before becoming a regular Reader contributor last year.