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Newspaper Union Chief Offers Advice To Globe Counterparts05:46
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The largest union of the Boston Globe is meeting with the paper's owners, The New York Times Co., Monday. It is the first time the two sides have met since the union rejected a package of contract concessions and the company responded by cutting union members' pay 23 percent.

The largest union at the Portland Press Herald recently faced a similar package of contract concessions. The difference? They accepted them. We asked Portland Newspaper Guild President Tom Bell his advice for his Globe counterparts going forward.

Bob Oakes: How should the Boston Newspaper Guild approach the sale of the Boston Globe?

Tom Bell: The Globe's going to have to find a partner who really wants the Boston Globe. And I think that the union in Boston is going to have to figure out how to present themselves to potential business partners, to say, 'We are not the militant union that you think we might be. We are reasonable people that can sit down and not only make a deal, but going forward, provide some labor peace. That, when you start laying off people — which is going to be necessary considering our revenues — we're not going to be screaming out the roof. That we understand that this is necessary.'

And the buyer is going to have to give the union something. They're going to have to treat them with respect, and as partners.

Give us a little background. How did the sale of the Portland Press Herald come about?

It was a long process. It started 14 months ago, when the Blethen family put the paper up for sale. We put a full page ad in our newspaper, looking for potential partners. We called every single rich person we could find in the state, and asked them if they'd work with us.

And I think when Rich Connor heard about the sale, he was calling around, and eventually we connected. Connor told us that if we had not been aggressive in reaching out to people, he never would have come to us and talked to us.

Tell us what you had to give up, what the union had to give up, in order to get this deal done.

Actually, our deal looks a lot like the same deal that the Boston Globe guild rejected last week. It's a 10 percent, two-year pay freeze, a suspension of our 401(k) contributions and a hard freezeon the pension plan.

However, we get two seats on the board of directors. The other unions in the company share another seat. Also, we'll have an ownership stake in the company, a 15-percent ownership stake, as part of an employee-stock ownership plan. And that we hope will change the relationship between labor and management, so that we're all more working together in order to reinvent this newspaper, and find a way to find profits and survive.

Do you think it's a good deal?

Well, our members certainly do. They voted for it 162 to 19. And it's a good deal in the sense of what the alternatives were. The alternatives were bankruptcy or closing the newspaper, and the Blethens just selling off the real estate. And the fact that we were at the table and negotiated in a real give-and-take manner allowed us to feel very good about this, as opposed to what happened at the Boston Globe.

There are those people in the community who do not think that it was a good deal, who think that you gave up too much, and who say that there could still be 100 layoffs at a 500-employee newspaper.

In fact we know that there'll be more layoffs. Our revenues are just absolutely plummeting, and the industry is in collapse. And we have this deal because we recognize that. And we're trying to save as many jobs as possible — hopefully a lot of these jobs will go via buyouts rather than layoffs.

Have guild members at the Boston Globe contacted you? Are they taking a close look at your deal to perhaps use it as a model for them in a possible sale of the Globe?

Yes, they are. And hopefully I'll be going down to Boston fairly soon to meet with them and talk about what we've done.

What's the chance do you think that the guild at the Globe might be able to pull off a similar deal?

I think it's a slim chance, only because I think it was a very slim chance that we did it. When we began to do this a year ago, we acted as if we had a good chance. The reality is, we were just very lucky that we had someone like Rich Connor who grew up in Maine, specialized in turning newspapers around, and really wanted to come back to Maine.

And it was his persistence that allowed him to work with us for such a long period of time, in the middle of the financial crisis and the worst period of time in the newspaper industry in modern time. How many Rich Connors are there out there in the world that are willing to do this, I don't know. I don't think there are many.

This program aired on June 15, 2009.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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