MEDIA Labor Pains

The lowest-paid reporters in Texas are helping the most profitable media corporation in the country defeat the unions.

For years, Dallas and Fort Worth have lured large industries from the North with the promise of low wages and weak unions. Now a New York-based media conglomerate, Capitol Cities Communications, Inc., has gone a step further; it’s using one of its recent acquisitions, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, as the home base for a mobile strikebreaking force.

Cap Cities came south four years ago when it bought the Star-Telegram. Now it’s using the cheap labor it found in Fort Worth to solve its union problems in other parts of the country, turning Star-Telegram editorial staff members into migrant workers and shipping them to places like Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the heart of big labor country.

It would be difficult to find a town in which unions are stronger than in Wilkes-Barre, the birthplace of the United Mine Workers and one of the battlegrounds on which the Molly Maguires and the coal bosses literally slugged it out over the right to form unions and to strike. Almost every Wilkes-Barre native can trace his or her roots back to the days when the coal mine was the place to fight as well as work. The four unions that represent the workers at the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader and its evening edition, the Evening News, call themselves the “four blocks of anthracite,” taking their nickname from the rock-hard coal beneath the eastern Pennsylvania valley in which the town is located.

Matched against these four tough unions is the most profitable publicly owned media corporation in the country. Cap Cities netted 14 percent in 1977 on gross sales of more than $300 million, twice the net profit percentage of other media giants like Times-Mirror Corp., which owns the Dallas Times Herald.

Cap Cities owns five daily newspapers, six television stations, seven radio stations, one weekly paper, and 23 trade publications. Cap Cities bought the Times-Leader, a monopoly enterprise with a circulation of 70,000, for $10.5 million last May. It was a real bargain; normally, a paper with that sort of lock on circulation would go for twice that much. Cap Cities got a bargain partly because the labor contracts covering almost all of the newspaper’s employees were to expire in October. Investors tend to shy away from potential confrontation with the unions.

At first, the Times-Leader editorial staff were cheered by the news that Cap Cities was taking over the paper. “The paper had traditionally been very conservative and old-fashioned,” says Paul Golias, a spokesman for the Wilkes-Barre chapter of the Newspaper Guild and a veteran reporter for the Times-Leader. “We thought new ownership might bring about some changes.”

As a former Star-Telegram reporter, I understand the kinds of expectations Golias and other Times-Leader employees felt. When Cap Cities bought the Star-Telegram from the Amon Carter Foundation in 1974, most of us thought the change would mean a tougher editorial policy and better pay. And when men in three-piece suits, carrying briefcases and speaking with Northern accents, began showing up, many of us thought they were there to change things. Star-Telegram reporters now conclude that their mission was to look at profits and productivity; reporters remain poorly paid, and while aggressive reporting is officially encouraged by management, it is hardly a requirement.

Changes quickly took place at Wilkes-Barre, too, but they weren’t the sort of changes editorial employees like Golias had hoped for. Within about three months of the purchase, before the labor contracts expired, Cap Cities began building a six-foot-high chain link fence, topped with barbed wire, around the newspaper building. All entrances but one were sealed, and a hired security force began patrolling the building, inside and out. Strangers began showing up to learn union members’ jobs. Some of them were from Fort Worth.

Fort Worth newspapermen had already been flown into Pontiac, Michigan, to break a strike at a Cap Cities newspaper, the Oakland Press, in the Detroit suburb. A one year strike has transformed the Oakland Press from a guild paper to a non-guild paper and left the strikers jobless. Labor and management agree Cap Cities beat the guild in Pontiac. The unions in Wilkes-Barre saw the same situation shaping up at the Times-Leader.

When contract negotiations began, the unions announced that they would take a renewal of the existing contract with a seven-percent increase in wages – the exact amount specified in President Carter’s wage control guidelines. Management’s response was simple and direct: Forget it.

The issue is not editorial salaries, however. Cap Cities says it’s willing to pay the guild scale newsroom salaries. But the new management contends that the guild and union contracts, drawn up long before Cap Cities acquired the paper, should not be forced on them. Management wants sweeping changes in the contract, covering everything from job security to automobile mileage allowances. Cap Cities contends that the union contract fosters featherbedding, protects lazy employees from being fired, gives the union too much say in hiring, provides too many expensive fringe benefits, and takes control of the paper out of the hands of management and puts it in the hands of labor.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” says Paul Golias. “The gut issue is that Capital Cities wants either to destroy the unions or subvert them to the status of company unions.” It didn’t take long for negotiations to fall apart. About a week after the contract expired, more than 200 employees of the Times-Leader went on strike.

Cap Cities had little difficulty filling the empty desks at Wilkes-Barre with reporters from the Star-Telegram and other newspapers in the chain. For one thing, the Wilkes-Barre salaries range up to $370 per week for an experienced reporter – at least $100 per week more than a Star-Telegram reporter with similar experience would make in Fort Worth. Reporters from Fort Worth say they went north to break the strike because they believe in freedom of the press, the newspaper’s. right to keep publishing despite the strike, and other such justifications. But all of them cited another reason: money.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say the money they were willing to pay was a heavy motivation for me,” says Donna Darovich, a Star-Telegram feature writer. “When I got my first paycheck up there I just wanted to tell the strikers, ’You dummies, don’t you see how good you have it up here?’ ” There were other amenities like free drinks and steaks each night for strikebreakers.

On the other hand, some of the Star-Telegram strike force found the increased salary was more like combat pay: “I knew it wasn’t going to be any picnic,” says Jim Palmer, a veteran of the Pontiac union-busting mission, “but this was just incredible. We were literally in a war.”

The transplanted reporters had to run a gauntlet of strikers to get into the newspaper building. “When you come to work, they call you the vilest things you can imagine,” Palmer says. “They spit on people; they punch people out on the sidewalk. I can see that kind of behavior coming from a steelworker or a stevedore or something, but from a professional, educated person, from a fellow journalist, that’s just unacceptable.”

“He can go to hell,” says Paul Golias. “He’s a scab who came up here to take people’s jobs away from them, and he’ll always be a scab.” The epithet apparently doesn’t bother the Star-Telegram writers who had T-shirts imprinted with “Texas Scab Squad.”

Opposition from the strikers isn’t the only obstacle the Fort Worth reporters face. “Damn near the whole town is behind the union and against us,” Palmer says. “It makes it pretty difficult to try to cover a beat when the people you have to deal with don’t waste any time telling you that they hate your guts.” Strikebreakers never leave the building alone, and usually take a security guard with them if they have to cover a story. Night work is out of the question. The pro-union sentiment of the Wilkes-Barre police is a barrier to covering police stories, and strikebreakers charge that the police interfere on the side of union members.

Community support for the unions takes more peaceful forms, too. The mayor has dropped his subscription to the limes-Leader, as has one local state rep-resentative. Many merchants have pulled their advertising from the newspaper and placed it in the Citizens’ Voice, a paper published by the union members. Union members claim that the Citizens’ Voice has grown to a circulation of 50,000, while the Times-Leader’s circulation has plummeted. Cap Cities disputes both claims, but recent issues of the Times-Leader have been almost devoid of local advertising.

The strike is bound to be costing Cap Cities a bundle of money, but the company is determined to use its tremendous financial resources to outlast the strikers. “Management said that if they had to print the paper in San Francisco and fly it in, with no advertising revenue at all,” Palmer says, “they’d do it for 10 years before they would give in to the union.” Company insiders say that since the selling price of the paper was so low, Cap Cities could spend $15 million to break the strike and still have a bargain in Wilkes-Barre.

Both sides feel there is a lot at stake. The newspaper guild has sent in national staff members to work the strike. If Cap Cities can’t be beaten in a union town like Wilkes-Barre, they reason, it will be difficult to beat the company anywhere, and management will have a hard-line precedent to follow. Cap Cities obviously wants to win for much the same reason, to squelch any thoughts of a guild movement among reporters at the Star-Telegram or the company’s other major paper, the Kansas City Star. And if Cap Cities is successful, the Times-Leader will be a real money-maker.

The key to Cap Cities’ success in pulling off this coup is the source of labor at the Star-Telegram. In Kansas City, a movement by the editorial staff of the Star pushed management into agreeing not to send non-management personnel to Wilkes-Barre.

But more than a few Star-Telegram reporters are strongly opposed to the strikebreaking. “It seems a little ridiculous to me,” one reporter says, “that reporters who are probably the lowest paid journalists on any major paper in this state would be willing, for a few extra bucks, to help management flatten a guild. We’d be better off if we had a guild of our own.”

The Star-Telegram reporter is right about one thing: Salaries there are the lowest of the five major dailies in the state. A Star-Telegram reporter with five years’ experience makes about $280 a week (there are a few exceptions who make as much as $310). A reporter with the same level of experience at the Dallas News makes about $300 a week. Times Herald reporters with equivalent experience make anywhere from $230 to $400 a week (the highest salaries are paid those reporters who have come to the Herald since 1975, when Executive Editor Ken Johnson joined the paper). An experienced reporter at the Houston Post makes in the range of $400, while the same reporter at the Houston Chronicle, the highest paying newspaper in the state, might make $450.

Star-Telegram reporters are not only paid less than their peers at other Texas papers, they are paid less than those at other papers within the Cap Cities chain. Reporters at the Oakland Press in Pontiac went on strike at $385 a week. Reporters at the Kansas City Star, some of whom took up a collection to send to strikers at Wilkes-Barre, are also paid better.

While there is irony in the fact that poorly paid reporters are willing to help the most profitable media corporation in America to defeat a journalistic labor movement, there is also a basic fact of economic life. Hungry people do jobs that others turn down. As long as Cap Cities has a supply of hungry journalists, it will have a strike-breaking force available. And it looks like as long as Cap Cities owns the Star-Telegram, it will have an abundant supply of hungry journalists.

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