As the countdown to The Village Voice’s contract expiration ticked T-Minus twenty-four hours last night, staffers and friends congregated in Williamsburg, tolerating noise bands and throwing back cheap cans of beer in solidarity. Suggested donations of $10 went to a contingency fund, to be used in the event the union goes on strike, a possibility workers voted unanimously to authorize last week.
Negotiating committee member Steven Thrasher climbed on stage in between sets to rally the troops for a long day of negotiations ahead, but in the crowd there was talk of movement. All week management—demanding employees contribute to their health care as part of the union’s new contract—had yet to budge from its position, but now, childcare benefits had been put on the table.
One could dismiss the concession on grounds that it only serves older employees, many of whom are management. But in a newsroom bonded–like many in the industry–by its limited resources, it is hard to rustle up antagonism across the management-shop divide. Some, including web editor Francesca Stabile, attended the fundraiser in solidarity.
“It certainly adds a kind of interesting psychological dimension to the negotiating,” senior film critic Jim Hoberman told The Observer in an earlier interview. “Traditionally the middle managers get the same benefits, so in a way we’re negotiating to keep their health care. And they’re acutely aware of that.”
In an e-mail to The Observer, editor Tony Ortega was sanguine.
“Every three years, we negotiate a new contract with the union. Every three years, the union authorizes a strike vote,” he wrote. “And every three years, we reach a new agreement, usually late on June 30. I don’t expect this year to be any different.”
Indeed, the triennial contract renegotiation is a lively fixture of Village Voice culture–older employees tell newcomers to look forward to the tradition, how much fun it will be to hold signs outside the glass conference room as negotiations press on–but it has never ended in a strike.
This is, in part, because the real opponent in the Voice‘s struggle to remain editorially independent yet finanically solvent is not at the table. Village Voice Media (VVM) executives Jim Larkin and Mike Lacey do not historically attend bargaining sessions, and instead send an HR representative—although they have been known to get on the phone.
“It’s like on that quiz show,” said someone familiar with negotiations. “They’re the life-line.”
THE VILLAGE VOICE union formed practically overnight in 1977, in response to Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the paper. Mr. Murdoch had recently taken over the New York Post, where his influence on the news concerned employees.
“My husband worked at the Post at the time, so we had a front row seat to what was happening there,” said Sonia Jaffe Robbins, former copy chief of The Village Voice. Ed Koch was running for the democratic mayoral nomination at a distant fifth, but Mr. Murdoch insisted his name be included in every story about the mayoral race, her husband remembered.
In that era of the Voice, employees staged a one-hour walk-out to show they meant business. Today, labor flexes its muscles on the Internet. Union stewards staked out a Tumblr blog at therealvoice.org, so that in the event of a strike, writers can publish in competition with the Voice but in solidarity with each other.
The blog’s first entry is a clever and obscure jab at the management: a photo still from the fight scene in Maidstone—a 1970 experimental film by Voice co-founder Norman Mailer—in which actor Rip Torn, playing Norman Mailer’s brother, spontaneously hit Mailer over the head with a hammer, drawing real blood.
When the union formed, Mr. Murdoch hired a lawyer named Bert Pogrebin to represent his interests. Mr. Pogrebin has been a rare constant in the Voice’s history, representing management through the ownerships of Mr. Murdoch, Leonard Stern and, now, New Times-turned-Village Voice Media. He also represents Harper’s management.
Personally, Mr. Pogrebin is something of a contradiction. He is a mercenary of the VVM executives—self-described “Visigoths” and characterized as “frat-boy libertarians”—yet is married to Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founders of the feminist Ms. magazine. In the early days of the union he helped negotiate a landmark stipulation–that gay couples qualified for employee benefits, coining the term “spouse equivalents”–while representing the man who would later own Fox News. His daughter, Abigail, is a journalist and writer, yet Mr. Pogrebin negotiates to take away the benefits of some of New York’s youngest staff writers.
MR. MURDOCH MAY HAVE moved on, but concerns about ownership influencing news remain. Yesterday the Voice published “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight,” the latest in its “The Truth About Sex Trafficking” series. VVM has a disclosed financial stake in the series, as they also own classifieds site Backpage.com. Accounts of the site’s illegal use occasionally crop up in the prosecution of underage sex trafficking.
Whereas previous installations of the series were published across VVM websites, the latest is hosted exclusively on the New York paper’s website. On blog posts promoting the story at other VVM sites, the words “underage sex trafficking” are uniformly linked, suggesting a company-wide effort to wrangle the search engine results of the term. The article was written by three employees of three different, out-of-state VVM publications.
Nick Pinto, the author of the series’ previous story “Women’s Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science,” became a Village Voice staff writer on Monday, transferring from VVM-owned City Pages. New hires are ineligible to join the union until three months in; they become eligible for health care benefits after one.
Whether intentional or not, the timing of these two events with the strike looming is conspicuous. They send a clear message: With 13 content-pumping alt-weekly staffs to syndicate from, VVM needs the staff of The Village Voice less than the staff of The Village Voice needs their VVM paychecks.
If management could and would, as the employees The Observer spoke with believed, produce issues of The Village Voice without them, it raises a natural question: Why bother with the theatrics and the uncertainty?
The symbolic value of the first-ever Voice strike should not be underestimated. It would be an homage to the ethos of Mailer’s Voice. Perhaps it would remind the Arizona libertarians why they named their media conglomerate after it.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Steven Thrasher as Jesus Diaz.