Thursday, April 12, 2018

Half a mind to struggle

     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. 


  1. It's important to note that workers don't create unions, business owners create unions. They do so by being oblivious to their workers needs, by creating a set of conditions that the workers have little choice but to try and protect themselves. They must organize for survival.

    I had a short phase of being in a union and the only time I needed them they had no interest in helping me. That and the many other sins of unions has not made me anti union, any more than the time I was cruelly misquoted in a newspaper made me anti newspaper. Some things are bigger and more important than the individual.

    Our conservative friends hate anything that block today's impulses. The FBI, one of the most important institutions in our nation to fight scoundrels, is currently being demonized because it has discovered that the Infant in Chief has been naughty. This is not how a healthy country is operated.

    I noticed that John Kass's name is not on the letter from Trib employees supporting a union. Surprise. I bet the conflict between self interests and knee jerk "conservatism" gave him a huge headache. Something tells me he won't turn down any benefits the union provides him.

  2. Yes, a Pox on McCormick. If you take a tour of Cantigny in Wheaton you'll hear how far he went not to pay the lowly wage earners a few more cents. That's how many of those wealthy Repubs are. How do they sleep at night. Greedy!

  3. Of course, the people who really really need a union haven't a snowball's chance of getting one. Fast-food employees and so-called independent contractors in many lines of work who are put in a position of competing against themselves for crummy high pressure jobs without benefits of any kind, are out of luck the way the law stands today. And it seems likely to me that the situation will get worse under Trumpian interpretration.


  4. I’ll share my similar experiences. Ideologically, I support Unions. However, despite my not remembering signing the relavent paperwork I discovered that my former Union had been quietly deducting dues for some 2 years. I had since moved to a new location out of the region. Their response to this was to tell me that I could only withdraw during an annual window, since past. I was ultimately able to withdraw due to a technicality. Admittedly, my new local Chapter helped me figure all this out, but I’m not exactly jumping to join again.

  5. One of the things I despise most about Bruce Rauner is how he pushes so-called "right to work" laws, so enthusiastically that he was willing to hold the state budget hostage for two years over it. As Eric Zorn says, it really should be called "right to freeload."

    1. I have heard those laws very accurately called "right to work for less" laws.

      I have never worked a job which had any union involvement, but I have always been a strong supporter of unions. Jimmy Hoffa did a great job of making people dislike unions, which was unfortunate. Many people would tell me, "Look, once there was a need for unions, but they got all the things they needed to get pay and benefit wise so they aren't needed any longer." All I could say to that was "Just how long do you think those things would remain if unions were gone.

      Unions aren't just their to bargain upward, but also to prevent things going downward. Similar to how Democrats are not just there to advance society, but also to protect it from being raped by the likes of Trump and most of the GOP.

  6. And let's not forget the jobs of almost 30 staff photographers that were wiped out a few years ago, to be replaced by gleeful freelancers.

  7. Amen to Neil and other pro-union posters here. I was the founding president of the union in my suburban school district. We were on the picket line for three weeks for recognition. Agreed it’s not fun to picket. There were times whenI, as a member of the bargaining/leadership team, I knew we were defending indefensible behavior (not illegal) on the part of union members and I was glad when we lost. Rauner’s Main Goal has alway been union busting. A young relative is a first-year CPS teacher who ran into false accusations by a crazy parent. I am so glad that her union rep is working with the school district to protect her. “As foe me, I’m sticking to the union...” Best of luck to EricZorn and his colleagues at theTrib.

  8. Despite his patrician background, FDR proudly said that if he ever had to take a job in a factory, the first thing he would do would be to join the union. The first thing I did was to proudly sign my membership card in the Newspaper Guild. Even though I got no help with grievances about work schedules and working conditions, I was more than happy they had our backs. Without them, the job would have been intolerable.

    My Socialist step-grandfather emigrated to Chicago in his early twenties and soon became an organizer in the men's clothing industry. In my early teens, I had begun to educate myself about America's labor history, the bloodiest and most violent of any industrialized nation in the world. But I waited a little too long to ask to hear his stories. He died suddenly. One snoozes, one loses.

    At his funeral, a comrade (pun intended) from the union gave the eulogy, mostly along the lines of "Izzy, champion of the workingman." It was only then that I learned about his role in the four-month-long 1910 garment industry strike in Chicago, with its countless injuries on picket lines, nearly a thousand arrests, and at least seven deaths. It was also FDR who said "Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy, forget in time that men have died to win them."

  9. Unions have mostly been the workers friend and a lever to pry a fair share of the profits from owners. But just as there are bad owners, some unions give anti-labor forces the weapons to bust the unions. Katherine Graham wrote about The Post having to hire hundreds of unnecessary pressmen under a bad contract. Then there's Disney with about only a third of its non-creative workers in a union covering all, with meager raises the result. There is a sweet spot somewhere on a scale so the owners make a fair profit and employees earn a wage sufficient to live a good life, raise their families with enough disposable income to buy the goods and services that make a healthy economy. Is it it human nature to find and agree to that balance or are we condemned to always want more than our fair share? Also, I followed Royko through three newspapers. I"ve never bought an issue to read about Kass's tomatoes. But my Times is getting thinner by the day and I feel near the tipping point. And now I can read Neil here, so to keep the printed page healthy shouldn't we support the strongest publication, union be damned? Papers have merged before, would it be better for Chicago to be a one paper town in the long run? If I can skip Sneed, I can ignore Kass.

    1. You can't read Neil's new columns here; you're directed to the S-T website. If it comes to it, a merger leaving one paper would be better than no paper, but there's a reason monopolies have long been frowned upon in this country. Given Chicago's history as a great newspaper town, one would hope that 2 can survive, but the way things are going...

      After getting a bit of encouragement from former colleagues yesterday on Twitter, even our host has apparently agreed that subscribing to the Tribune is a worthwhile idea, at this point. (My suggestion months ago that he should feel guilty for not doing so had no effect, alas.) ; ) In the old days many people subscribed to both.

      It seems to me that we need to rethink the position of newspapers in this economy and time of information overload. They're not just businesses to be left to the vicissitudes of the market -- they're essential safeguards against tyranny, fake news and ignorance. I'm not a big fan of Amazon, but I'm very happy that a guy like Bezos could just step in and buy the Washington Post, and help it not only survive, but get even better. It's about time for all of us to look at local newspapers like many of us look at Public Television and Radio -- enterprises of intrinsic value that need to be supported, regardless of what kind of personal return-on-investment we get back from them.

      Meanwhile, that New Yorker cartoon applied to this topic, along with "Half a mind to struggle" as the title for the post are cherce, indeed.

    2. It's still the old days at my house; we get the print version of both papers (although only 4 days/week for the Trib), along with the WSJ and a couple of weekly local papers. But as JP mentions, they've all gotten much thinner. I'd hate to see either gone. I'd miss the S-T more, and not just because the Trib crossword is too easy.

    3. Down my way the Joliet Herald is popular. I know people who won't touch a Chicago paper and others who get all three.

  10. Jakash, with the new web edition the hassle is minimal. Also to Coey, one paper is better than none. It would be to the readers to keep it honest. I don't see two papers surviving much longer.

  11. When I was a kid, Chicago was still a four-newspaper town, reduced to three in my young adulthood, and finally two, after the Daily News died forty years ago last month. Seems like the day before yesterday. Ironically, I heard about its demise...and my own...via the nightly network news, while vacationing in Florida. And nearly a thousand other folks went down with the ship.

    I've lived in a one-newspaper town (Cleveland) for 25 years now. I call it a one-half newspaper town. It's not something I would recommend to those who grew up in a world dominated by print journalism, and who still love it and miss it. Never thought I would envy the folks in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh. But I do now.

    1. I remember the days of four papers. I remember when "The American" (blech) morphed into "Today" (meh). No loss when that one disappeared. Two major newspapers is just right for a city the size of Chicago. People need a choice.


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