New York has the mentality of Cuba. Just as surely as that country is the last to discover that communism is a fake, New York will be the last place to get cynical about unionism. Not yet, though. The Daily News, legendary tabloid of the musical "Guys and Dolls" ("What's in the Daily News?") may well have the words "late, lamented" appended to its masthead before New York gets the picture.
The strike against the Daily News is now in its seventh week. The News was once the nation's largest circulating newspaper. Just before the strike, its circulation, although declining, was still a respectable 1.1 million daily. Now an estimated 350,000 copies are circulated -- circulated, maybe, but not sold. On a recent weekend in New York, the News was being given away on Park Avenue. I took one. It was light as a feather. The ads were gone.
It's sad to see a newspaper die. New York once had almost two dozen newspapers. Now the city's down to The Times, the News, New York Newsday and the struggling Post. New York is not different from other cities in this regard. The grand and golden newspaper era is over. It would take a miracle for all these New York newspapers to survive, and New York, from the looks of it, is out of miracles.
The term "economics of the business" sounds to me, a newspaperman, like "fatal disease." I cringe, but I understand. If economics and demographics -- competition with television, readers who have moved to the suburbs and, finally, the term "young reader" turning out to be nonsense -- are going to kill a newspaper, then I merely shrug my shoulders. But if the paper is killed by selfish and corrupt unions, then that's a different matter. That may be the case with the Daily News.
It is certainly the case that some of the unions now on strike are corrupt. Over the years, in semi-collusion with a brain-dead management, they won contracts in which their members get paid for not working -- sometimes, would you believe, at overtime rates. This is especially true when it comes to the drivers and the pressmen. Only in New York, do unions act as if they own the place. I say "act" because they are not playing with their own money.
I am not naive. The owners of the Daily News, the Chicago Tribune Co., may well be out to bust the unions -- the good ones as well as the bad ones. That's reprehensible. The owners have brought in a union-busting law firm from Tennessee, not to mention scabs from Appalachia. In New York, these are not considered confidence-building measures. And somehow, for some reason, management alienated the Newspaper Guild, which represents the writer and editors. That wasn't smart. Writers and editors are glib sorts. They'll murder you in television interviews.
Probably the Tribune Co.'s worst mistake, though, was to underestimate how mindlessly pro-union New York is. While it's true that many newsstands won't sell the News out of fear of violence, it's also true that in New York there is little indignation about that violence and no demand that the News be sold. In certain sections of the city, the paper has simply disappeared. No one asks for it.
All strikes are complicated. Few owners are totally reprehensible, not all unions are terrific, and both sides lie. Sooner or later, though, New York has to ask itself that old union question: Which side are you on? If it were I, I would be on the side of the Daily News. I would not be on the side of corrupt unions -- no matter how tough, stupid and stingy the owners have been. I would not hit the bricks to condone featherbedding, and I certainly would not condone violence. New York at the moment is doing all of that.
It just could be that this strike will kill the New York Daily News. The paper says it could lose $200 million this year. After a 1978 strike, 12 percent of the paper's circulation never came back. This time, it could be worse. The big advertisers are gone, and now the secondary ones -- Radio Shack, for instance -- are also pulling out. The unions say they have prospective owners for the Daily News. I doubt it. Kuwait would be a better investment.
New York will again learn the hard way that capital is mobile and workers are not. The Tribune Co. might simply put its money elsewhere. If that happens, New York's unions will have won another glorious victory -- as wonderful as the one that killed the Herald Tribune. Not even the most cynical Times Square gambler could foresee the day that's fast approaching. When Nicely Nicely Johnson and his Broadway pals sing "What's in the Daily News?" no one will know they're referring to a newspaper.