I’ve been grieving since early Friday morning after a slew of emails revealed the unthinkable – the workers at the Chattanooga Times Free Press have “had enough” and are apparently ready to make the biggest gamble in a failing media industry. They want to start a union, of all things.
I was there when the last union bellied up on East 11th Street and I don’t hide the fact the 36 years I spent in the newspaper business was the most fun I ever had. But I’ve also got to own up to the fact that I’m partially to blame for what has happened and today I’m just as sorry as I can be.
After my grandfather died in 1990 and my Uncle Frank inherited the role of publisher, we were finally rocking along pretty well when Frank was dealt life’s cruelest hand – Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Ours was a family newspaper and we were all decimated. Because of a variety of reasons and different circumstances, our family made the decision to sell and, since our reputation was good and the Chattanooga market was heady at the time, we had a pretty good list of suitors.The big thing, and so help me God this is the truth, is that we wanted a buyer who would be good to our people. Sure, money is what you use to buy and sell but we felt a strong obligation to the employees who – I’ll tell it straight – were like members of our family. This may sound goofy but it seemed like we celebrated somebody’s birthday every day and, by golly, family members were required to be there.
Now about 15 years before we softly whispered to our industry friends that we could be bought, the two newspapers in Little Rock, Ark., got in a jaw-to-jaw battle much like the News-Free Press and the Times had in Chattanooga in such a spectacular way. The Arkansas Gazette was the big morning paper and this guy named Walter Hussman, at age 27, bought the Arkansas Democrat, which sold about half as many papers every afternoon.
Well, my grandfather knew a lot about newspaper wars and – in the way these things go – Walter was soon calling for pointers and ideas in gamesmanship. A friendship blossomed and when Hussman’s company, WEHCO, finally won the prize fight against Gannett, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was the biggest newspaper monopoly in the state. And we thought we were good friends.
When the day came when we had to decide which offer to take, Walter Hussman (WEHCO) was picked because he promised to take care of our people, not just the long-time employees we loved but the Times writers and the benefits packages and the “traditions,” for lack of a better word, that we felt our community deserved. Now that not one family member works at the Times Free Press any longer, I can say that selling to Walter Hussman’s crowd was the blackest day in my family’s history.
I wanted to stay but didn’t last a year after the sale. I later heard some stories I hope aren’t true but when I saw the way our employees were treated and the brutal way people were fired, it was proof enough that our family, so keen on doing what was right for our people, had unwittingly and unintentionally ruined some of our dearest friends. Trust me, I’ll never get over what WEHCO did to our people and, eventually, our city.The fact some Times Free Press workers are now intent on forming a union is absolutely repulsive to me. I’ve seen how unions work – up close – and anybody who hasn’t noticed our nation has an increased rancor for “organized labor” has to be living in a cave. We’ve got too many people who are going hungry – right now -- and too many union shops that are quickly closing down badly-choked companies because of gross stupidity and loathsome greed. I can’t see how any union has a chance and, remember, Hussman has the keys to the door.
The newspaper industry is dying just as fast. The statistics are alarming and, don’t kid yourself, WEHCO would sell the Times Free Press on any given afternoon. Between overpriced advertising, atrocious news judgment, inept interns and disgruntled carriers there is no buyer who’ll get a bargain. Now you can add an entire workforce whose flyer states, “If we do nothing, we’ll get what we’ve been getting – nothing.” Sadly, that’s darn near about what the newspaper’s worth.
One more note: If a group of employees force a union vote and win, they still have to negotiate. In order to play that game, you have to have a stack of chips and the Times Free Press workers, in today’s economy with the three biggest newspapers in Alabama going to a three-edition per week format this fall, couldn’t bargain for a used Chrysler.
The clandestine email cites no raises in five years, constant downsizing, plotting against employees and – far worse – a universal lack of trust, dignity and a person’s worth. “We’re tired and worn out,” the email states. “This is a story that will have long legs. Stay tuned.”
There is a website where interested parties can request further information and updates – email@example.com – but all I can say is I’ll never forget the day my family made a foolish decision and, as I ponder what is to come, all I can say is how terribly sorry I am that it has come to this.