In the story of the brinksmanship going on between the New York Times management and the Boston Newspaper Guild -- the largest union at the Boston Globe -- there’s one point that never fails to jolt me every time I see it mentioned.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, facing a shutdown of the landmark Boston paper if the unions don't agree to another $10 million in concessions, the Guild “is opposed to certain non-financial concessions, such as the elimination of lifetime job guarantees for certain employees.”
Lifetime job guarantees.
The phrase evokes ridiculously mixed emotions. On the one hand: How civilized, how just, how wonderful that there are still pockets of our economy that protect the livelihoods of people whose work, the brutal forces of the market have determined, is no longer profitable enough.
And it’s not just any old work: What a news organization does, after all, is as fundamental to democratic society as government itself -- and any newspaper needs a stable, experienced staff in order to function. No bean counter can assess the value of a reporter or editor whose contribution is not always visible to the casual reader. So it makes a certain sense that there would be something like academic tenure for the highest caliber of journalists.
On the other hand ... lifetime job guarantees?
At a public company, in this economy? The Boston Globe is on track to lose $85 million this year -- about a third of the $250 million its parent company had to borrow, at a 14 percent interest rate, from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. There is a real danger that not just the Globe but the Times itself will have to cease operations within the next couple of years if current advertising trends continue.
The Guild membership is apparently willing to not just go down with the ship, but cling to its oversized luggage as the decks fill with water.
To my generation of media people (I’m 43), the very phrase “lifetime job guarantee” is something to be approached comically, if a little wistfully. (The alternative is to be filed with generational envy and rage, and I won’t go there -- promise!)
When we’re in our 60s and 70s, none of us will be sitting in private offices in the New York Times building, as I’m told that several former high-level editors who are getting on in years do -- cashing paychecks as we manage “projects” that are more the reward for years of service and savvy ladder-climbing than they are essential or profitable business operations.
What will be doing, those of us who missed the “lifetime job guarantee” boat? (Many of us, alas, also missed the reasonably-priced-family-home boat that these older Guild members had the chance to get on, as well.) It’s safe to say few Gen X’ers look like we’re headed to retirement any time before we’re, oh, 80 sounds about right, as I look at my miniscule 401K.
One thing’s for sure: If there are any giant news organizations in that future era -- Google World News? Yahoo Daily Express? -- there will be no Guild to stand up for anyone’s right to keep getting paid.