A group of workers from the Washington Post staged an “informational picketline” today against their employer, bashing the company’s plans to freeze pensions and cut union benefits in ongoing collective bargaining negotiations. “SHAME ON BEZO$,” read a sign at the event, referring to The Post’s owner Jeff Bezos. Toward the end of the one-hour-long rally, the Erik Wemple Blog counted about 40 people in attendance, though an organizer insisted that many more were around at its peak. (The Washington City Paper reported about 50 attendees.)
Since coming under the control of Amazon founder Bezos in October 2013, the paper has hired about 100 additional newsroom employees, launched various news products and introduced a wide-ranging content partnership with newspapers across the country, the better to hook news consumers on the Washington Post product. Another prong in the plan appears to be a hard-nosed stance toward the union, the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. In a letter last month to employees, the Post announced plans to freeze pension benefits for its employees, though promulgating that change for guild-covered employees will require a contractual change.
Fredrick Kunkle, a guild co-chair and a Washington Post reporter with nearly 15 years of service, said at the protest that the guild is seeking mutuality with the paper’s new ownership: While reporters and editors bust their butts to produce a world-class product, management should reciprocate with world-class benefits. “Jeff Bezos has the power to be that kind of employer, but it’s not clear that he wants to be,” says Kunkle.
Guild folks, of course, are aware of Bezos’ history — or non-history — with unions. Amazon has consistently fought unionization, and worker conditions at the company have been the subject of some intense investigative journalism. In 2011, The Morning Call, a newspaper in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, documented the extreme conditions for workers at an area Amazon warehouse. “I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one,” said one worker quoted in the story.
History notwithstanding, guild principals officially remain in benefit-of-the-doubt territory regarding their negotiations with Bezos. “Yes, but we’re challenged to be in that place,” says Kunkle.
Excellent defined pension benefits had long been a foundational perk of Washington Post employment. Under the management of former chairman and CEO Donald Graham, the Post’s pension performed spectacularly and was overfunded year after year to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars — a performance that Graham credited to investment guru, friend and Washington Post Co. board member Warren Buffett. (Bezos inherited a pension plan with a surplus of $50 million). Deep pension surpluses enabled humane newsroom-shrinking methods: Over the past decade, the newspaper funded several rounds of generous buyout packages via the pension funds, sending happy veteran reporters into retirement and other journalism jobs with bulging pockets and great health benefits.
Even though the company stopped offering the pension plan to new employees in 2009, workers hired before then accumulated benefits based on age and experience. Now Bezos wants to end new obligations, freezing those benefits where they are now. At the same time, the company is making massive cuts to contributions to employees’ 401(k) plans. The guild has built a pension calculator accessible from this page; an employee making $80,000 with 10 years of service and 15 years shy of retiring would lose a total of nearly $250,000 in benefits, according to the calculator.
“They’re breaking their promise,” said picketer David Montgomery, a staffer for the Washington Post Magazine with 21 years of Post work under his belt.
Washington Post management declined to comment for this story, though this blogger, a dues-paying guild member, is happy to play corporate spokesperson for just a second: A massive cost-cutting campaign — and quite possibly newsroom layoffs — would have materialized if the sale to Bezos hadn’t taken place.
Pensions are just the biggest-ticket item separating the union from management. Proposals to cut severance pay, weaken seniority and job-security provisions in the contract are also in play. Said veteran Post staffer Valerie Strauss at the protest, “It is unfortunate that our new corporate employers, like other corporate employers around the country, think it is okay to rob workers of job security and retirement benefits… That’s not really a good business practice.”