In the past year, The Oregonian has asked reporters to go as far as Iraq and India, but no request has been as extraordinary as the one Executive Editor Peter Bhatia made last Friday: an appeal for reporters and editors to fly to Ohio and work as scabs.
"Folks: You are probably aware that the Guild [the union that represents members of the print media] has struck the Youngstown, Ohio, paper," Bhatia wrote in an email to The Oregonian's 350-strong newsroom. "Our parent company is helping the management in Youngstown continue to publish by supplying workers from our sister paper in New Orleans. We have been asked to see if there might be volunteers from here, willing to go to Youngstown and work."
The request is remarkable for a few reasons: First, the Newhouse family's Advance Publications, which owns The Oregonian, does not own the Youngstown Vindicator, an independently owned afternoon paper whose 70,000 daily circulation is less than a quarter of The Oregonian's.
Second, Bhatia's request would help Vindicator management quash reporters who are paid a small fraction of the compensation paid to the O's staff, which is non-union--a little bit like asking the New York Yankees to cross a minor-league team's picket line. (According to Debora Shaulis Flora, vice-president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA Local 11 union, top pay for a reporter in Youngstown is $713 a week, less than half what the O's top talent makes.)
Oregonian staffers who brave the Ohio winter and cross the Vindicator's picket line will be well compensated: "Volunteers would continue to receive their Oregonian salaries and benefits as well as being paid by Youngstown. Transportation, etc., would be covered," Bhatia wrote.
Steve Lacy, a professor at Michigan State University's School of Journalism who studies newspaper ownership, says it's common for chains to shift staff from paper to paper during a strike but more unusual for a chain to help an independent paper. "That's odd," Lacy says.
Bhatia's email is interesting, given The Oregonian's historically cautious approach to labor relations.
That approach is the legacy of a bitter strike against The Oregonian that began 45 years to the week before the Youngstown strike--on Nov. 10, 1959--and lasted more than five years, before the Newhouses busted the union's hold on the paper.
Ever since, the Northwest's largest daily has been a non-union shop, albeit one in which employees enjoy job security, pay and benefits well above the industry average. Those perks are part of a determined effort to keep employees happy--and union organizers at bay.
Bhatia did not return a call for comment, but he and Editor Sandra Mims Rowe seemed aware of the potential union backlash. His memo concedes that some journalists might be "uncomfortable" crossing a picket line. (The complete memo is available at wweek.com.)
"I am sending this to you for two reasons," he explained. "The publisher requested we do so. And because Sandy and I both feel every newspaper should have the opportunity to publish every day."
Folks: You are probably aware that the Guild has struck the Youngstown, Ohio, paper. Our parent company is helping the management in Youngstown continue to publish by supplying workers from our sister paper in New Orleans. We have been asked to see if there might be volunteers from here, willing to go to Youngstown and work.
They are, at last report, looking for half a dozen reporters and copy editors. Volunteers would continue to receive their Oregonian salaries and benefits as well as being paid by Youngstown. Transportation, etc., would be covered.
I am sending this to you for two reasons:
- The publisher requested we do so.
- And because Sandy and I both feel every newspaper should have the opportunity to publish every day.
I understand some may be uncomfortable with this sort of situation or with crossing a picket line, as I assume they would have to do. There is no pressure for anyone to go. It is completely voluntary.
I don't have all the details yet, but anyone interested or wanting to know more may should contact me via Groupwise.
Peter Bhatia (I'm at home, but logged on to e-mail.)