Without the union, I probably would have never been hired by the Chicago Sun-Times.
It was 1987, and I had been freelancing for the paper for two years.
It was a perfect arrangement, as far as the newspaper and myself were concerned — the paper needed reporters who could quickly and accurately bat out stories. And I needed the $125 that such stories paid. If you wrote five a week—and I could, easily — it almost constituted a kind of living.
Left to our own devices, we'd have continued that way. I was freelancing for other places, heading down to Haiti to study voodoo for the The Atlantic magazine. I was in no rush to tie myself to any particular publication.
But there was a fly in the ointment. The world did not consist solely of the newspaper and myself. There was also the Chicago Newspaper Guild, an entity that looked askance at the regular freelancing of news. It tolerated it for a while, then told the Sun-Times management: This guy is basically a scab, undercutting union reporters. Hire him full time or stop using him.
Thus a job was offered to me. I took one look at that princely salary — $33,000 a year in 1987 – and felt I really had no choice. "I have to give this a chance," I told my girlfriend Edie.
I will admit, it was not the ideal work environment to be flung into. I was unpopular walking in the door, not quite seen as an anti-union thug, but not a fresh-from-the-box new hire either. More of a kind of patsy, a semi-scab, someone dubious and tainted and taken advantage of, not to mention sullied by my magazine work. Real Chicago newspaper reporters were annealed in the low-wage furnace of City News. I was hired by features, to write for The Adviser, a weekly publication telling readers how to keep Japanese beetles off their lawns.
As my career unfolded, I kept the union at an arm's length. My philosophy was, I'm unpopular enough with management as it is, for my habit of speaking frankly, sometimes in print about them. Let's not make it worse. I spent seven years on the night shift, and was the last 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. reporter the paper employed. I had a boss tell me that, if it weren't for the union, he'd have fired me on the spot, on general principles.
Working nights got me an extra 10 percent pay, as stipulated in the union contract. The contract was filled with other protections and rights. In 1995, I invoked a line in the contract that allowed male workers to take up to a year unpaid paternity leave. I would have certainly never have done it otherwise — the contract not only granted permission, but it gave me the idea. There was no reason not to. I had been on staff for eight years. I was a night shift grind with no future, at least not one here. I had written three books, and with money from the latest, I could step away, take a break from deadline reporting, look at my options and, oh yes, help raise this newborn.
So I walked away. Thank you Samuel Gompers. Thank you John L. Lewis. The paper didn't miss me — in fact, I'm certain I was given a column while I was gone because I was the Man Who Walked Away. It gave me an appeal that my actually being there would have dissipated.
Another union perk.
I paid my dues, accepted benefits with both hands, and left the organizing to others. Having a contract made the job better. It prevented abuse. I remember, living on Logan Boulevard, closing the door to my apartment on a Friday, my day off since I worked Sundays, hearing the phone ring inside. "Leave it," I thought, hand on the doorknob. Instead I went back in, and picked up. An editor telling me to get to Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn and spend 24 hours in its ER — we wanted to scoop a pending Trib story on trauma centers.
So I did. Some businesses would require a low level employee to work 24 hours on a moment's notice and then say "Thanks." If that. Being a union business, that meant I could take time and a half off for the weekend overtime. So in working 24 hours on my day off, I earned a week's paid vacation. Seemed fair to me. More than fair. I've always viewed working at the Sun-Times as a sweet job, and the union was the spoon that stirred the sugar.
That is what unionism is about. Taking the buckets of benefits that pour over owners and re-directing a few tablespoons to workers. If that week off seems generous, it pales next to the millions that owners sucked out of the paper without ever having to gingerly watch large, howling men who had been shot at a street corner dice game being catheterized.
Without a union, you're naked. The reporters at the Tribune certainly were. People assumed Trib staffers did better than Sun-Times reporters — I think the Tower, and its fancy aura, and the Tribune's general tone of hauteur threw them off. But whenever I actually compared specifics with my colleagues at the Tribune, to my vast surprise, they were doing worse: worse pay, worse benefits, worse health care, worse job security.
They didn't have a union because their bosses had always been paternalistic mini-Col. McCormick's who convinced their underlings to trust them. What unions they had were brutally repressed. The Tribune was the place where pressmen picketed for years, to no avail. Those miserably marching pressmen are why I'd never subscribe; I don't think I've ever bought a copy of the Tribune at a newsstand, ever, to this day.
So now the Tribune newsroom is organizing. About time. And congratulations.
As momentous as this is, I hope they remember — with those pressmen in mind — the union is a means, not an end. Forming the union is only the beginning; you have to stick together, hang tough, make it work. There's still a fight ahead. Many fights.
Sure, there are downsides to unions, as there are to any organization or human activity. I've never met a coworker so deficient or crazy that the union wouldn't go to bat for them. So you'd hear some doorjamb-gnawing lunatic you couldn't believe was ever hired has finally been called on his or her particular madness. Then you'd inevitably hear that the union is fighting it.
That said, the management claim that the union made it impossible to fire people was not true — the procedures made it difficult, but there are procedures, and though often management was often too slipshod and lazy to actually go through it, to build the paper trail. Under the proper motivation, it was possible, and they did do it.
Sometimes we did find ourselves picketing the company picnic, to get a point across. That sucks. Picketing sucks. As does leafleting. But I do it, when called upon, because you have to. Otherwise, you're a parasite, living off the blood of others.
The union was weakened by the financial crisis of 2008. In 2009, when Jim Tyree bought the paper, he had three stipulations: we had to take a 15 percent pay cut. We had to freeze our pension plan. And seniority — the requirement that people be fired in the reverse order they were hired — was done away with.
The union resisted — the first vote turned the offer down. In my memory — and I might be over-dramatizing my role — I remember being one of the few who supported taking a deal. "I'm a Jew and we survive," I remember saying. "The purpose of the union is to protect our jobs at the newspaper. But if there is no newspaper and no jobs, I'm not really concerned whether the union is strong or not."
So the union undercut itself, to protect what was important. We muddled through. Now the union is trying to recover what we surrendered. I don't know of anyone who regrets that decision — it's been a good job this past decade, still.
It's encouraging to see our colleagues at the Tribune moving to unionize. Given how they have been manhandled by a series of cash-sodden jerks: grave dancer Sam Zell, tech toddler Michael Ferro — they need something strong on their side, protecting them against the whims of whoever can muster the cash.
This resistance is happening all over. Last Sunday, the Denver Post ran an extraordinary editorial denouncing their own owners as "venture vultures" and calling for someone who cares about the city to buy the Post. Newspapers, having been beaten up for a decade, and under a president who prefers fascism to a free press, they are finally fighting back.
Fighting back is good. There is a New Yorker cartoon that shows two explorers up to their necks and sinking. "Quicksand or not, Barclay," one says to the other, "I have half mind to struggle."
That's where longtime newspaper employees have been for a dozen years. Struggling. Fighting. Not giving up. Samuel Johnson said it best.
"I will be conquered. I will not capitulate."
That's the spirit. If victory is the opposite of defeat, then forming a union is the opposite of surrender. I don't often wish the Tribune well, but I wish them well now. We are all cooking in the same pot. So much of the economy is pushing workers toward the piecemeal home workers who were so abused a hundred years ago. Success for one means improvement for all. Forming a union is a step in the right direction. Not victory. But a step toward it.