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In the good old days, moneyed families kept a trusted dog on the property. It was usually a ferociousand ferociously loyalanimal that was treated as a member of the family. When trouble came knocking, all the owners had to do was unchain the dog and the problem would skedaddle. If the dog eventually became too ill-tempered to bear, well, it was just taken out back and shot.
For the past decade or so, the Washington Post has deployed Frank Havlicek as a tactical weapon every time a labor contract has come up. Released from his cage deep in the bowels of the paper’s 15th Street NW headquarters, the Post’s vice president for industrial relations and environmental services would tear into negotiations with gusto, pummeling unions with logic and numbers andwhen that didn’t workinvective and threats, until the opposition finally collapsed out of exhaustion or fear. It wasn’t anything Katharine Graham would want discussed at one of her afternoon teas, but Havlicek got it done, time and again.
In spite of its vaguely progressive editorial cant, the Post didn’t become a phenomenally successful media enterprise by bending over every time the unions came calling. The conflict is a natural byproduct of success: The Post prints lots of moneyin addition to a fine daily paperand its unionized workforce is always eager for a bigger slice of the wealth its labor creates. That’s where Havlicek comes in. He is, by all accounts, an alley fighter who shares none of Graham’s penchant for smiling and wearing beige when conflicts arise.
Havlicek’s considerable persuasive charms were on full display in negotiations with Local 29 of the Washington Mailers Union, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) whose contract is up June 15. The union represents 500 Post mailroom employees who bundle advertising inserts into the paper. Ad inserts are playing an increasingly important role in revenues, and the Post wants more control over the mailers’ work assignments and job definitions to maximize profits. Negotiating letters anonymously faxed to Washington City Paper suggest that Havlicek and CWA negotiator William Boarman have taken to the negotiations with all the delicacy of velociraptors dividing up a piece of raw meat. In those letters, accusations of electronic eavesdropping are made, “threats and posturing” are a frequent motif, and the union’s suggestion that Havlicek is “fucking crazy” is also mentioned.
Things went from surly to surreal on May 9, after a morning session in which Havlicek believed Boarman said there would be “fighting in the streets” if progress wasn’t made.
Boarman recalls the meeting differently: “I told him that we are a union, and we are going to act like a union, and we are going to do what we have to do to get our workers a decent agreement,” he says.
“In the afternoon,” Boarman says, Havlicek “went off and said that I had threatened the Post. He said, ‘The CWA is not big enough to take on the Washington Post. We took on the president of the United States and took him down. We took on the federal government and won.’ I assumed he was talking about Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.”
Havlicek recalls his words as, “We’ve beaten the government and the president of the United States.”
Either way, that’s a mighty impressive bit of organizational hubris. A union source close to the negotiations says that when Graham got wind of what Havlicek had said in the heat of the moment, she wanted him out. The newspaper published a report Tuesday indicating that Havlicek, who previously worked for NBC and former New York Mayor Ed Koch, would resign because he believed the company had not supported his position at the table. (Pity reporter Mike Mills, who must have drawn the short straw when he got the assignment of writing up a ticklish company matter.)
In a phone interview, Willis Goldsmith, a partner at the law firm Jones Day who is acting as a spokesman for the Post said, “Mr. Havlicek resigned from the company.”
“You will have to ask Mr. Havlicek that.”
Washington Post President Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones said Havlicek did not resign under pressure. So he did it because…
“He will have to explain that to you.”
OK. “So, Mr. Havlicek, why did you resign?” I asked in a phone call.
“I haven’t resigned.
“I have not resigned and I am on vacation. I did offer to resign, but that offer was rejected by publisher Don Graham at the Post. More than that I am not sure I can say. I asked Bo Jones for permission to go on vacation for a month and he said OK,” Havlicek said.
“Why would I resign?” he asked. I suggested that he had made an incredibly dumb statement at the negotiating table that had probably made his bosses mad. (The remark was first reported in the Washington Times’ Inside the Beltway column.)
“Do you think I would resign over a statement like that?” asked Havlicek.
Havlicek was clearly “off message,” as they say in political circles. He wouldn’t say so, but between the lines he suggested that the company is caving to threats from the union. It isn’t as if CWA is going to be firebombing the loading dock any day soon, but Havlicek seems to think that industrial chaos and labor riots are just over the horizon. Why else, he pointed out, would the Post station a ’round-the-clock guard at his house for eight days after the negotiations took a nasty turn. I asked him if he would be going back to work after his “vacation.”
“No, not necessarily. I am trying to decide what I am going to do. Bo has offered to make me a consultant to the Post,” he said.
Havlicek said he mentioned resignation in the first place because, “I took a very strong position on behalf of the Post. I thought it was best to give them an opportunity to decide to pursue the proposal I made or take a different course. By stepping aside temporarily, I have given them the flexibility to do either.”
During a 5-minute conversation, Havlicek did not let a single statement of fact, opinion, or circumstance pass unchallenged. I suggested that the unions had been unhappy negotiating with him and he interrupted: “Unhappy? Why would the mailers be unhappy with me? They make $44,000, have job security and fully paid health insurance. Why in the world would they be unhappy?” I began to understand what it might be like to negotiate 40 or 50 contract points with him. Carol Rosenblatt, administrative officer of the Washington Baltimore Newspaper Guild, was asked whether she was going to miss her old adversary.
“Not much. He promoted a form of labor relations that we thought disappeared years ago. He was interested in demeaning behavior; he was abusive to employees who had a grievance against the company. We hope that the Post will see his vacancy as an opportunity to bring someone in who has a more enlightened view of labor relations,” Rosenblatt said.
CWA’s Boarman said Havlicek’s statement about the Post’s unmitigated power “was the most arrogant statement that I have heard from a company official in 30 years of collective bargaining. I don’t believe that it represents what Don Graham and Katie Graham are about. They made some pretty serious decisions back in those days, and they knew there were huge risks in what they did.”
The Post’s Jones seemed positively nostalgic in his assessment of Havlicek.
“Frank did a very good job for the Post in negotiating contracts with unions over his nine years here. He was very constructive, creative, and reached a number of balanced agreements. His resignation was of his own choosing and for his own reasons.”
Jones is keeping it nice even though Havlicek isn’t going quietly. Company officials say that with Havlicek out of the picture, the negotiations with the mailers are proceeding apace, which suggests that the Post is convinced that Havlicek’s blistering advocacy has seen its day. Guess it’s time to get a new dog.
The Post’s Pulitzer Nomination Geneva Overholser, ombudsman for the Post, was elected chairwoman of the Pulitzer Prize board last month. Ombudsmanship is usually a one-way ticket to obscurity, but Overholser, the former editor of the Des Moines Register, is making a name for herself by taking on some of the paper’s most hallowed names. Last Sunday, she chided her employer for its cheesy “Issue Forum” special advertising sections, which look like news but aren’t. And she took on Bob Woodwardsomething that hasn’t happened since he was canonized back in the ’70sfor his use of unnamed sources in his takedown of Al Gore’s fund-raising activities. Managing editor Bob Kaiser felt compelled to respond to her critique in print, which suggests that she’s getting under somebody’s skin. Overholser’s ascension to the chair of the Pulitzers isn’t going to get any seconds in the Post newsroom, where Beltway provincialists view her as a prairie marm who just doesn’t know how business gets done in the big city.
Throwing Boomerangs Last Monday, Howard Kurtz of the Post pointed out that this month’s Washingtonian article on male baldness was “accompanied by no less than three ads for hair transplants.” The day before, the Post Magazine’s article on adult education was bracketed by “no less” than seven ads for same.
Alumni Function This month’s Washington Monthly Journalism Awards went to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, along with Michael Gerson and Steven Waldman of U.S. News and World Report. Alter and Waldman are both Monthly veterans, which may demonstrate that the Monthly’s journalistic progeny tower above the field. Or that a little log-rolling never hurt anybody’s career.
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