Print-Web contract divide is a bad deal

Unions, in general, have now spent decades as the unpopular stepchildren of the American economy. Unions in the media industry face the same challenges as their industrial brethren; they are derided by opponents as vestiges of an obsolete economic model that promote mediocrity and shackle companies from making forward-looking changes.

Unions, in general, have now spent decades as the unpopular stepchildren of the American economy. Unions in the media industry face the same challenges as their industrial brethren; they are derided by opponents as vestiges of an obsolete economic model that promote mediocrity and shackle companies from making forward-looking changes.

Earlier this month, news broke of a rather jaw-dropping detail in a settlement between the Newspaper Guild and Time Inc. over unfair labor practices.

The Guild, which covers about 400 employees (including print reporters, but not online writers) at major Time Inc. magazines like People, Time, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune, approved a new three-year contract with the company on October 5. But a provision of an accompanying settlement, agreed to by both sides, stated that union print reporters cannot be forced to do work for the Web; that is, any writing for a magazine's Web site above and beyond what goes in the print edition will be purely voluntary.

It appeared, at first blush, to be a case of a union demonstrating a comically backward-looking attitude in a quest to protect members at any cost. Who in their right minds could argue that setting up a wall between print and online work is remotely feasible, economically or otherwise, in the modern media environment? What were they thinking?

As it turns out, the issue is not so clear-cut. Bill O'Meara, president of the Newspaper Guild of New York, notes that the union's initial grievance was a response to Time Inc.'s plan, announced last summer, to tie reporters' compensation to how much work they do online. But the print-online split provision that emerged, he says, is not what they had in mind.

"The Guild did not propose this language. In fact, we fought long and hard against it," O'Meara says via e-mail. "We had proposed that magazine work and Web work be interchangeable. However, that would require Time Inc. to extend the wages and benefits of our contract to Web workers who currently are not covered by the contract. They refused to do that."

He calls Time Inc.'s position "foolish... given that the Web is the future," and notes that the union has negotiated contracts at places such as The New York Times and Consumers Union that did cover both Web and print reporters.

Time Inc. SVP of corporate communications Dawn Bridges would not answer questions
about the contract, saying only, "We're pleased we've come to an agreement."

Meanwhile, O'Meara states bluntly that such an enforced split between print and online work is not a viable model for future contracts, and says that the union hopes that the company will renegotiate it in the future. The situation, he charges, stems from Time Inc. "trying to cover the Web 'on the cheap,' by getting our members to do it for no extra compensation, and by having non-union people do the rest."

It seems that what happened is this: Time Inc., one of the biggest players in the mostly non-unionized magazine industry, simply decided that it is more cost-effective to institute a ridiculous throwback provision that separates print and online writing than it is to risk having to extend union benefits to more employees.

Considering Time Inc.'s precarious financial position within its parent company, that strategy may make economic sense, at least in the short term. But sooner or later, unionized media companies will have to make a real decision about how to fairly compensate their editorial employees for the rising amount of work that comes with the Internet era.

"[Companies] have been cutting resources, so people are already working harder. Then they're told that they have to do a bunch of new things on the Web," says Mark Obbie, a former magazine editor who teaches magazine journalism at Syracuse University. "And I bet a lot of them want to. But enough's enough."

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