City Desk

WaPo: Clearing the Way for Layoffs?

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.

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  • huffpo

    You need to fire that Rob Kunzig. Every time he posts a story, the page gets fucked up. Is anybody minding the store?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com Ted Scheinman

    HuffPo,

    Thanks for your note. We're pretty sure we've fixed it now, but our computers weren't showing a problem to begin with—so let us know if the problem persists.

  • Craig Plumfagen

    "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."

    This won't just be a problem at the crisis moment of layoffs. This becomes a huge morale problem immediately. Newsrooms always have had teacher's pets, because of some man- or woman-crush that an editor has on a young journalist, because of their lower salaries and longer work hours (better bang for the bucks, y'know, in part because they're more likely to be single and free from family obligations), and because they are the ones most likely to have been hired by the current managers.

    That last one always has been a dicey dynamic because the newest teacher's pets often crowd out yesterday's pets -- the boss who hired you and thought you were hot stuff moves on, and a new boss comes in and can't claim credit for hiring you, so YOUR value goes down even if your work remains excellent. This is what happens in such a thoroughly subjective profession -- you're only as good as the current boss thinks you are, and there are few ways to prove different.

    In the past, the suddenly disregarded and neglected journalists at least could take solace in knowing that they would have their jobs over the young'uns, if times got tough, thanks to seniority. Now that will be gone. In a group of 100 reporters, the person who has been there longer than 25 others will be on the bubble. Don't think for a moment that lunchroom lists won't be compiled starting immediately, guessing at the chosen ones and calculating who really would be in jeopardy.

    At which point, there's this: That person or those persons will have paid Guild dues a heck of a lot longer than the newbies, for less security. Might the union, based on this and the stagnant pay/benefits, soon be reducing its dues, so members aren't paying more for less?

    If I'm the person on or close to the 25/75 line, I sure as heck am not in favor of the change. And if you need to cut 25 percent, you'll end up with the newbies, then a big gap in mid-career people, then a bunch of lifers. Until the next round, then more of the lifers get thrown overboard.

    Good luck with all of this. Should make for a real unified newsroom, the epitome of team.

  • edward

    There are reporters at the Post whose stories appear in the paper only once or twice a year, and editors who have done nothing for years. Unfortunately, they are still favored in the front office, and this contract won't do anything to thin out the ranks because they are so protected by the Graham family.

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  • Mike

    Why would a Guild member vote for this contract, especially a member who has minimal seniority?

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