“The Village Voice,” said editor-in-Chief Tom Finkel when he was hired at the paper in July 2013, “is the quintessential reflection of New York culture.”
When he gave that statement, Finkel may not have been referring to the culture of trade unionism in many workplaces across the city. Yet on Tuesday, members of UAW Local 2110—which represents twenty-seven staff writers, editorial assistants, listings editors, and sales representatives at the Village Voice—voted to authorize a strike at the nation’s historic alternative-weekly newspaper after their three-year contract expired Monday.
“We voted unanimously to set a date for a strike,” said Stephanie Zacharek, the principal film critic at the Voice and a shop steward with the union.
The vote came after a thirteen-hour negotiating session failed to bring representatives of Voice Media Group LLC, the parent company of the Voice, and the employees’ bargaining committee to an agreement over health care costs and working conditions at the newspaper. The bargaining committee met Tuesday night to discuss a strike deadline.
For a paper long at the forefront of improving working standards in the journalism industry, the company’s position at the negotiating table is “really a departure” from past practices, said Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein.
“Management insisted on keeping their givebacks on the table,” Secretary-Treasurer Eden Schulz added. Schulz said that the “most major and significant givebacks” insisted upon by the company’s representatives—including publisher Josh Fromson—were for employees to begin monthly health insurance payments, an item previously covered by the employer. “We were unable to move them off it,” she said about the health care contributions.
Emailed for comment, Fromson did not respond by the time of publication.
According to an emailed statement from the union’s bargaining committee, Voice Media Group LLC is insisting that single employees without children begin paying $200 per month toward their health insurance. The proposed rate for employees with children is $740 per month. The company offered a $30–35 weekly raise, what the union referred to as “barely even a cost of living increase.” But coupled with the increased health care contributions, the raise still amounts to a substantial pay cut, especially for employees with children.
When asked by the bargaining committee for the amount Voice Media Group LLC would save with the employee health care contributions, Schulz said company representatives returned with a spreadsheet listing anticipated savings of $8,498.84.
“I don’t know if it is about the money,” said Schulz. “They want a weaker contract, and more power over their employees.”
For many in the publishing industry, what is most recognizable at the Village Voice is not the strike vote, but the history of corporate restructuring and the attempted benefits cut and degradation of working conditions that have followed. Bought in a private-equity-backed deal in 2005 by the Phoenix-based New Times Media, the newspaper was for seven years owned by the Village Voice Media, which owns seventeen papers. Then, in 2012, public pressure mounted after Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times began accusing Village Voice Media of enabling human trafficking with the adult-services advertisements published by Backpage.com, a subsidiary of the company. Ann Romney had invested in one of the private equity firms that had built the media conglomerate, and as the issue grew into a scandal, Goldman Sachs, the manager of Romney’s investment fund, and Trimaran Capital Partners, which had also backed the merger, divested from the company. In 2012 Village Voice Media was restructured in a management-led buyout to create Voice Media Group LLC.
During this time UAW Local 2110 had given some concessions to the Village Voice, such as increased co-pays to save on employer premiums. “The last eight to ten years have been tougher economically,” says Rosenstein, “but, especially in the last contract, we fought hard to try and preserve the employer-paid health benefits.”
Given the relatively small sum the company expects to save from shifting health insurance premiums onto employees, Zacharek believes that the company’s insistence on the plan is “symbolic.” She called the concessions on working conditions “mean and petty.” Among the non-monetary demands Schulz says the company is making is halving unpaid maternity leave from six to three months. According to the union’s statement, requests for a guaranteed minimum salary for staff writers, an increase in commissions for sales staff, and a company commitment to fill vacant office positions have all been rejected by Voice Media Group.
On Wednesday the Village Voice issued a statement that it was “confident that we’ll achieve a mutually beneficial resolution—the hardest part may be getting this many New Yorkers to agree on what qualifies as a good cup of coffee,” in reference to one of the employee bargaining committee’s demands.
Manjula Martin is the co-founder and co-editor of Scratch Magazine and manages the Who Pays Writers database of freelance rates. “We do consistently hear,” says Martin, “from journalists through our community and Who Pays Writers that job conditions, and the power to bargain with publishers about those conditions, continue to decline. It’s no secret that even journalists who have had long careers are now struggling to make ends meet.”
Zacharek, who is fifty, corroborates these claims. “When I got out of journalism school in the early 1980s,” she said, “we were like, ‘Oh my god it’s so hard to get a journalism job.’ Young people coming up today have to be twenty-times tougher than we were. The money that they’re making is really sad. It’s such a small amount.”
In the past, says president Rosenstein, Local 2110 had been a “trend-setter for publishing.” She listed the benefits won over the past three decades: child care, paid maternity leave, domestic-partner health insurance, and affirmative-action contract language. “Past management was actually proud of themselves,” said Rosenstein about the Diversity Coordinator position. “They wanted to be cutting edge in this way.” Yet the issue of workplace diversity was a point of contention with Voice Media Group. The existing contract allowed for a paid staff position to monitor hiring and promotional practices, but in negotiations Voice Media Group proposed making the position unpaid.
Though Voice Editor-in-Chief Finkel has not been a party to the dispute, his judgment that the newspaper is a “quintessential reflection of New York culture” rings true through to the heart of the negotiations. On one side stands a corporate conglomerate of a dozen newspapers, originally an investment vehicle for Trimaran Capital Partners and Goldman Sachs, that was restructured in a management-led buyout and is now trying to defray existing labor costs onto its workforce. On the other stand the twenty-seven employees who refuse to lose more personal income for management decisions.
As Zacharek sees it, “this is part of a much greater fight.”
“For years now I’ve been hearing from my superiors at several different publications ‘Oh, writers, they’re just a dime a dozen. If you don’t want this job, go ahead and walk away because we can replace you in five minutes.’ It’s a kind of bullying that has just become rampant in this profession.”
At the Village Voice, she and her coworkers are fed up with it. “You get to a point where you just say enough already.”
Andrew Elrod is a writer living in New York.