Off the Record

Things are getting a little less polite in the ongoing labor dispute between Dow Jones, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal , Barron’s and Dow Jones Newswires, and its employees’ union, IAPE 1096.

While it’s hardly looking like Last Exit to Brooklyn down at the company’s lower Manhattan headquarters, newsroom grumbling about salary and benefits has increased to a dull roar over the last five years, and now-for the first time in the company’s history-there is frank talk of the possibility of a newsroom strike. Union leaders have even formed a committee to investigate whether they have reached their last resort and should strike to protest the terms of a contract that chairman Peter Kann wants his union employees to ratify. The contract would put a freeze on wage increases for the year 2003 and force employees to pony up premiums to help cover their health insurance.

“It’s more of a research committee,” explained IAPE organizer Tim Martell. “This is certainly an area that the membership of IAPE has never approached in previous rounds of bargaining with the company, so naturally our members have a lot of questions about job actions, about strikes, what it would take to have such an action at Dow Jones, and what it would mean to the membership.”

He said the leaders of IAPE greenlighted the formation of the strike committee two weeks ago in a conference call.

“We’re hearing in the hallways from more and more members: This is something we have to consider. We’ve gone a year without a contract now, and we have to consider drastic measures.”

On March 2, employees staged a “job action” in which virtually all unionized editorial employees in the U.S. and Canada-including some 200 in the Wall Street Journal newsroom-didn’t show up for work until 12:30 p.m., marching in together from a designated meeting place (an Au Bon Pain near the paper’s World Financial Center offices in lower Manhattan).

Union members said that participants in what might have seemed a bit like half of a senior “cut” day probably weren’t technically violating their work contracts: Most reporters who don’t work shifts just have to get their stories in and clock 35 hours a week sometime over the course of five days.

“We were not asking anybody to throw a wooden shoe into the printing press or anything like that,” said stocks reporter E.S. (Jim) Browning, who has been a reporter at The Wall Street Journal since 1979 and is a member of the committee that is presently at the bargaining table with management.

But in a stern, fatherly statement issued by Dow Jones leadership, the action was not taken lightly.

“While there was no immediate effect on our operations, this sort of concerted behavior is not protected under the labor laws and the groups involved are being advised accordingly,” the statement, released by Robert Christie, read.

The company was rather more dramatic about a Feb. 25 action in which employees took a concerted “coffee break” around 2 p.m. that lasted about 15 or 20 minutes-an action that company officials labeled a “work stoppage.”

“This is a polite union, and this is a polite place,” said one reporter who participated in both actions. “It’s sort of fun in that we no longer have a cafeteria-they decided to save money by not having it anymore when we moved back down here [to the World Financial Center after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack].

“I mean, this isn’t the Teamsters-this isn’t even the teachers’ union-so they’re getting mad enough to actually do something, which is something around here.”

Late last year, the union leadership was close to a deal with Dow Jones management that would have frozen wage increases for the year 2003 and required employees to pay premiums to maintain health-care coverage.

But when an e-mail went round the office on Nov. 25 asking reporters to tell the union that they disapproved of the deal the union leadership was about to cut, and to support a continued fight for better terms, some 150 of the 200 union members signed it.

According to several sources, the intransigence of the management on these points is driving union members further and further away.

“A bunch of reporters showed up at the union meeting in New Brunswick, where they were installing a new president,” said Mr. Browning, referring to a meeting that resulted from that campaign, “and the reporters made an impassioned appeal to them-including me. And basically the union leaders at that point decided that there was enough support from members that they should try to get another deal.”

In fact, by the time the union voted, 84 percent of the union rejected the agreement. “That’s what our members are telling us: no cuts to health care,” Mr. Martell said.

“Dow Jones and the union are continuing to bargain in good faith over the terms of a new contract, and the Company remains confident that we will be able to achieve a negotiated settlement,” the Dow Jones statement released on March 2 read.

“The union is unhappy at the Company’s decision to ask all employees to pay a small proportion of their healthcare premiums. This is in response to unprecedented increases in healthcare costs to all U.S. companies that Dow Jones has experienced as well. We are confident that Dow Jones’ medical benefits under the new proposed plan will continue to rank among the best in the publishing business and US industry generally. Indeed, the vast majority of IAPE members would be required to pay between $11 per month if electing single coverage and up to $65 per month for full family coverage depending on the plan they choose.”

Though sources at The Wall Street Journal said that Dow Jones managers had held at least one meeting to develop a strategy for putting out the paper in case of a strike, Mr. Christie would not confirm that such a meeting had taken place.

According to Mr. Martell, the union organizer, even if the staff decided to go on strike tomorrow, it would be a month before any action could be taken on the decision.

“We’re always a month away from any action like that, because our members have to authorize any job action, and it takes us a minimum of a month for us to conduct a mail-in ballot, and that’s what we need to do.”

But some reporters remained skeptical-even as resolve seems to grow among the staff to reject the contract presently under negotiation-that a strike would ever happen at Dow Jones.

“I don’t know if people here would go on strike,” one said. “I think they’d go work for The Times before they did that. They already are.”

-Tom McGeveran

As the end of a winter-long search for a new editor for The New York Times Book Review , Times executive editor Bill Keller and managing editor Jill Abramson are expected to meet with the Book Review staff on Wednesday, March 3. But don’t start the drum rolls just yet. At that meeting, “we will not be announcing a new editor,” Mr. Keller told The Observer via e-mail. “We just want to hear their thoughts on the future of the review.”

Sources at The Times said Mr. Keller had instigated the meeting as a kind of morale-booster for the Book Review staff, which is growing weary of reading information-and misinformation-in other publications about the search for its new boss.

The Times had originally hoped to name a new editor by March 1, but the search was delayed last month when Adam Moss, who was overseeing the search, left his post as assistant managing editor for features to edit New York magazine. Mr. Keller and Ms. Abramson-who have the final say in the hire-picked up where Mr. Moss left off, but also added a few more candidates to the mix.

According to sources familiar with the search, Sam Tanenhaus, a well-regarded biographer and contributing writer at Vanity Fair , is a leading contender, with Sarah Crichton, a former editor at Newsweek and former publisher of Little, Brown, still very much in the running. Mr. Tanenhaus declined to comment, and Ms. Crichton didn’t return calls for comment. Mr. Keller cautioned against “recycling speculation” as to who the candidates might be. “We don’t have a final choice yet,” he said. “That’s because with this, as with any major appointment, we want to be comfortable that we’ve searched widely and found the best.”

-Rachel Donadio

Off the  Record