The Washington Post is bashing its union again.
The Washington Post treasures the free flow of information. It published the Pentagon Papers against the wishes of the Nixon administration. It pushed the ethical envelope to pursue the Watergate story. And these days, it’s always fighting the District or Prince George’s County to score documents that belong in the public domain.
“A serious newspaper sees its mission as more than just covering public events: it wants to uncover hidden information,” say Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser in their book, The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril.
Yet the paper’s passion for transparency appears to exclude one place: its own newsroom. In its ongoing negotiations with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, Post management is proposing a Pinkerton-style restriction barring employees from circulating union bulletins to their peers at work.
The move is bound to anger the knights of the First Amendment in the Post newsroom. “I don’t think it behooves the Post or any other company to restrict employees’ ability to talk about their workplace,” says Jonathan D. Newman, a labor lawyer at the downtown firm Sherman, Dunn, Cohen, Leifer & Yellig.
If guild members aren’t rankled enough about the restriction, there’s also management’s rationale for suggesting it: “We want to reduce the clutter associated with that,” said Post Vice President for Labor Patricia Dunn in a recent negotiating session, according to a guild circular. Dunn declined to comment on the issue.
It seems odd that Post management has identified union circulars as the tipping point for a newsroom bursting with D.C. Registers and FOIA’d documents. Rick Weiss, a Post science writer and co-chair of the paper’s guild unit, notes that management’s feng-shui-ish concern with clutter hasn’t stopped it from distributing its own propaganda. “It’s a terrible, terrible clutter problem that we’re all willing to put up with,” says Weiss.
Quips and recriminations are about the only things moving in talks over renewing the guild’s three-year contract with the Post, which is set to expire on May 18. It’s a time when Post reporters experience their employer as the sort of cold, profit-driven corporation that Downie and Kaiser deplore in their book.
With the whole industry cutting costs and jobs amid slumping ad sales, this year’s negotiations promise to bring extra penny-pinching from Post management. “The company says that in these difficult economic times, we need to recognize that there have been no layoffs at this particular newspaper, which I read as ‘Be grateful that you work at the Washington Post, and that should be enough,’” says bargaining-committee member and Style writer Ann Gerhart.
The Post’s institutional self-confidence is reflected in one of its bargaining proposals: Management wants the paper’s union to waive its rights to negotiate over the placement of hidden cameras in the workplace. Post negotiators, according to guild members, insist they have no current plans to install such security-enhancing devices, but they want to leave their options open.
“We will not have this imposed on us unilaterally,” says Weiss, who insists that the union will fight to maintain its negotiating leverage over the placement and purpose of cameras. Reporters don’t want management to use the cameras to check workers’ hours or to investigate even petty workplace peeves, such as who’s using the company fax to send out resumes.
Gerhart says management has at least declared bathrooms off-limits. And she challenges her supervisors to spy on her workstation. “If someone puts a video camera in the monitor of my computer…it’s going to see me here talking on my telephone,” she says. “I would think it would be an incredibly boring scene.”
According to guild chief negotiator Rick Ehrmann, the Post has agreed to brief guild leaders on the cameras—after union folks have waived their bargaining rights on surveillance and agreed to a confidentiality restriction on the content of the briefing. “They are agreeing to meet with us to listen to our concerns—but then do whatever they want,” says Ehrmann.
The “do whatever they want” part has some solid historical grounding at the Post. In 1975, Katharine Graham famously crushed a pressmen’s strike at the paper, in a management victory that still reverberates at 15th and L. On top of that, the guild can’t even come close to shutting the newspaper down: The 722-member union controls neither the production nor the distribution of the paper, and it represents only 55 percent of the eligible newsroom staff.
Given that imbalance of power, Post negotiators can show up to each bargaining session pushing use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies and 1 percent annual raises for newsroom staff over the course of the three-year contract. “That’s an insult,” says Newman.
An insult that union members can answer with outrage but not much more. “‘Ineffectual’ does not begin to describe them,” says Metro columnist Marc Fisher, who is not a member of the guild. CP