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A bit of the NFL may be coming to the Washington Post.
No, this region’s premier daily isn’t signing anyone to a multimillion-dollar contract or deploying the cover-two on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. But the paper may soon be designating a platoon of “franchise players.”
Here’s why: The Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and Washington Post Co. management have just completed negotiations on a new collective bargaining contract. Consistent with its stance toward other unions at the Post Co., management pushed to undermine seniority protections in the event of layoffs. In a yet-to-be-ratified contract with the paper’s newsroom union, Post managers would be able to choose a group of stars—-25 percent of unionized employees—-who would be exempt from the last-hired, first-fired rules that have governed the paper for years.
Here’s how the provision would work: Say the Post decided it needed to trim 10 reporters from its Metro staff. In the seniority-protecting Washington Post, the laying-off would have started with the recent hires—-often the young, workaholic types that managers really want to retain. Now, under the unapproved contract, Metro’s top managers would be able to set aside 25 percent of the guild-covered staff and say to them, in effect: Even though you were just hired, you’re protected from the layoffs.
To carry the scenario one step further, consider that the number of guild-covered employees in Metro is about 130. That means that more than 30 could be designated as franchise players, and the layoffs would begin with the rest of the staff, in last-hired, first-fired succession. “The vast majority are still covered by seniority system,” says Joe Kahraman, a local guild rep. Kahraman was pleased with the terms of the tentative compromise in light of what the Post Co.’s negotiators have done to the seniority protections of other unions represented at the company. Destroyed them, that is.
The Post‘s guild bargaining committee is recommending that the rank-and-file approve the proposed contract, on the rationale that it doesn’t totally screw over the workers. It provides for lump-sum payments—-bonuses, basically—-for staffers of $1,000 this year and $600 next year, though there will be no standard raises to base pay. “[G]iven the climate of wage and benefit cuts elsewhere in the industry and the fact that The Post’s newspaper division showed an operating loss of more than $50 million in the first quarter, we believe this is the very best we could achieve,” reads a guild posting on the matter.
Another high point: The tentative contract, according to Kahraman, provides a process under which employees of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, the company’s online publishing subsidiary, could become members of the guild. Washingtonpost.com has long been produced in WPNI’s Arlington offices by a non-unionized work force; that operation is due to merge with the Post‘s newsroom in the fall.
Yet the big news from these negotiations relates to seniority. The 25 percent cut-out for the favored pupils of the newsroom’s bosses strikes a huge blow to the longstanding seniority system. According to the guild, there are roughly 960 employees covered by the contract, a little more than half of whom work in the newsroom. If there’s a fresh-faced staffer with great potential, there’s no way editors will have trouble protecting her. And a longer-serving reporter will be out of a job.
The negotiations steer the Post toward a much less humane approach to cutting personnel costs. Four times this decade, the paper has tapped into its bottomless pension fund to induce senior newsies out the door. What a painless experience—-veteran reporters and editors leave with a mouthful of cake and wheelbarrow full of money.
Layoffs under this 25-75 plan could get nasty. First, editors would have to tussle over the franchise-player roster, a process that would mire the newsroom in gossip. Then they’d have to show their work. “They would have to give us a list of that,” says Kahraman. “It would be transparent.” In the event of a layoff, staffers at the various sections would be able to look at a chart detailing just how far down they stand on the layoff depth chart.
On the plus side, such documentation would sure take the guesswork out of Washingtonian writer Harry Jaffe‘s occasional efforts to list the paper’s up-and-comers.
The scheme, however, could reward ruthlessness. There’d be nothing stopping Post editors from using salary alone to determine who’d be on the list of layoff-exempt personnel. They could just pad the list will all the lowest earners in the newsroom. That way, the layoffs would kick in for only the top earners, maximizing the savings from layoffs and minimizing morale.
Guild activists are hoping to secure contract ratification by Thursday afternoon—-as is management. “We believe the agreement strikes a fair and responsible balance in this difficult climate for both newspapers and the overall economy, and we hope that it will be ratified and signed this week,” says Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth.
Weymouth didn’t indicate whether layoffs are imminent.