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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jan 3, 2012, 7:48 pm

Class War at the Gray Lady? New York Times Gives Millions to CEO While Pushing Concessions on Union

BY Mike Elk

The New York Times has long been held up as journalism's standard bearer. Thus it seems only fitting that The New York Times Company gave departing CEO Janet Robinson a nearly $15 million severance package while demanding that its current employees take benefit and pay cuts. (Robinson gained early and immediate access to her full pension of $10.9 million, and will earn $4.5 million working as a consultant for the company in 2012.)

At big companies throughout the media industry (like the Tribune Co.), high salaries and large bonuses for those at the top and pay freezes or concessions for those at the bottom have become standard. Of course, it's indisputable that the journalism industry has been in a crunch for years, with layoffs at newspapers around the country, including the New York Times.

But after implementing a pay wall and making other cost-saving changes in 2011, the Times has returned to profitability. Still, according to Newspaper Guild of New York President Bill O’Meara, the Times is now pushing a contract on its workers that asks the union to accept an inferior healthcare plan, eliminates extra pay for working late nights or changing one’s schedule to deal with major breaking stories, and would implement a freeze on contributions to employee pensions. The Times claims the contract would save it $9 million a year.

The freeze on contribution to employees' pensions is offensive to Times union members in part because of the million-dollar package given to Robinson. In a sign of The New York Times Company's intent on freezing pensions, the newspaper unilaterally froze pensions for all foreign employees not covered by the Times' bargaining unit. This sparked outrage from unionized employees who penned an open letter to the New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. on December 23, saying:

Our foreign citizen employees in overseas bureaus have just had their pensions frozen with only a week’s warning. Some of these people have risked their lives so that we can do our jobs. A couple have even lost them. Many have spent their entire careers at the Times -- indeed, some have letters from your father explaining the pension system -- and deserve better treatment.….

We have worked long and hard for this company and have given up pay to keep it solvent. Some of us have risked our lives for it. You have eloquently recognized and paid moving tribute to our work and devotion. The deep disconnect between those words and the demands of your negotiators have given rise to a sense of betrayal.

The open letter was signed by 546 workers, including veteran Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse. The New York Times Company did not respond to request for comment for this story.

Writing earlier this year in an article titled “Why Not Occupy the Newsroom”, New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote on the seething inequality between top managers in the news industry and workers:

The optics of the bonuses are far worse than the practical impact. Newspapers are asking their employees for shared sacrifice and their digital readers to begin paying. So, lucrative packages won’t cut it. As newspapers all over the country struggle to divine the meaning of the Occupy protests, some of the companies that own them might want to listen closely to see if there is a message there meant for them.

David Carr did not sign onto the letter to Sulzberger Jr., but he did tweet out a link to the letter and later commented on Twitter that “My thinking was that as someone who covers NYT occasionally, I should not take a position.”

But clearly, Carr’s point about inequality in the newspaper industry applies to The New York Times.  For now, New York Newspaper Guild President Bill O’Meara says workers at the Times are continuing to organize against the company's proposed contract concessions. 

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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