Benefits could be cut without a union

A young colleague asked me a question that might be on other people’s minds as well: What’s the benefit of having a union under the current circumstances?

Here is essentially how I replied:

I know things seem quiet. There are no more talks of layoffs or benefit cuts. Why do we need a union?

And I’d answer that question this way: Things are quiet now because we have a union, and the benefits aren’t being cut any more because the company literally cannot do so.

Almost a year ago, as you know, the company ended our negotiations and imposed working conditions. Under the law, those conditions must come from the company’s final contract offer. Once imposed, the company can make no further changes without negotiation with the union. Any and all other benefits remain the same.

That means the company cannot cut people’s pay. Without a union, they could. (Remember, they wanted to eliminate the “no pay cuts” clause but did not succeed.)

The company could not decide to raise the $750 health insurance deductible to $1,000. Without a union, they could.

Same with vacations, differentials for working nights or any other benefit. You have a union, they cannot be cut. No union, they can.

When the company decided to lay people off, remember they initially did not want to offer a voluntarily buyout. We pushed and got one. Because we did, some people left voluntarily with extra cash. Because we have a union, fewer people got laid off. No union? More layoffs. No voluntary buyouts.

I am amazed how swiftly people forget that.

And because we have a union, those who got laid off got severance pay and health-care coverage. Again, no union, those things are not guaranteed.

Let me tell you two stories about where specific benefits came from. Reporter Brendan Lyons, after having his first child, asked why we did not get any paid time off and had to use vacation. I took that issue to the bargaining table, and now we get a paid week. The benefit wasn’t just handed to us; it was bargained.

Carol Farley, who works in advertising, came to me and ask why managers but not Guild members got financial help to adopt a child. Carol, along with Mark McGuire and another employee, came to the table and argued passionately that adoption of a child was no time to discriminate between exempt and Guild employees. They were convincing, and the benefit exists today.

Without a union, no company comes to employees and says “What benefits would you like us to add?”

Even in the imposed conditions, we won some new benefits. For example, people can now donate time to a seriously ill colleague. This benefit arose when we had several co-workers died of cancer, and people wanted to donate time but were not allowed.

All these benefits continue to exist because the union is here to protect them.

We’re still active in many other ways. We helped an advertising employee who was disciplined for not selling enough online ads (even as she brought in six-figure print ads.) There is a worker in circulation I am helping now. There are several other issues in circulation I am dealing with.

If you want to talk to someone about why the union still matters, talk to Mark and Tina DeCenzo. They will tell you flat out Mark is still here thanks to me and the Guild. The TU wanted to lay Mark off and outsource his job. With his help, we convinced the company he was doing more work than he was credited for and the Connecticut print shop wasn’t up to his standards.

Or talk to some of the folks who were laid off. They still think highly of the union. They got severance and health care for months, and we are still fighting for them because walking people out when we were negotiating criteria is illegal. (That’s not just me. The National Labor Relations Board is about to charge the TU with breaking the law.)

The Guild was and is willing to be flexible on the issue of seniority. We offered to let the company identify strong newer employees to keep and older workers with weaker skills to let go. We are and continue to be willing to go further. But we also think about the impact of being laid off late in life, when your odds of finding a new job are slim and your need for health care is great. We know of one laid-off employee who has diabetes, has been unable to find work and is about to lose health care. That’s a formula that can lead to losing a home or bankruptcy. Should seniority be the decisive factor? No, but I’d argue it should be given some weight.

I was, by the way, the last one hired when the company announced years ago it was closing the Knickerbocker News and merging it into the TU. I thought I’d lose my job. It’s a scary feeling one never forgets.

So, yes, there are still great benefits to the fact the union is here. Without us, the company could remove those benefits at any time. Even under imposed conditions, they cannot.

-Tim O’Brien.

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