Tin Meisters

But that was then, this is now. The current editor in chief, Donald Forst, has a laid-back style and the mood in editorial is conspicuously subdued. Indeed, last week, as 24 representatives of labor and management commenced a series of meetings to negotiate the latest contract, there were few overt signs of hostility in the room. But the absence of posturing and rhetoric was merely a sign of resolve by union reps, who are determined to resolve an unprecedented number of outstanding grievances before the contract expires, on June 30.

"Negotiations so far have been very businesslike," says Voice publisher David Schneiderman, who first participated in contract negotiations in 1979, when he was editor in chief of the Voice. "We hope to continue to make progress. We've never had a strike and we're not looking for one."

According to management insiders, management took its cue from the union and adopted a new tone for negotiations: rather than "dicking around," management would put more on the table up-front and say no to fewer demands, as a demonstration of its good faith in the collective-bargaining process. (Management lawyer Bertrand Pogrebin initially opposed the strategy, but Schneiderman persuaded him of its merit.)

And so it came to pass that management threw out two bones at a meeting with union reps on June 17. First, in response to union complaints about its dental plan, they offered to switch the union to Delta, the insurance provider used by management. Secondly, management announced a new Career Development Program that will offer skills training to all employees interested in advancement.

"Not many employees apply internally for posted jobs," says Schneiderman. "If we have a better job-recruitment process, we think we can fill jobs faster. I want to encourage people to think about their careers here."

Union reps greeted the proposals with cautious optimism, noting that the dental plan being offered was not the same as the management plan. And some were dismayed that management rejected several specifics out of hand, including a demand that writers be paid electronic-reprint fees and a series of provisions related to job security, which is one of the key themes this year. Job worries are directly proportional to expansion by parent company Stern Publishing, which now owns seven alternative newspapers nationwide. The union suspects Stern Publishing is restructuring the company without union input, hoarding profits and farming out work to nonunion employees— claims management denies.

Paranoia runs deep at the Voice, but union reps are confident as they head back to the table this week. First on the menu: the union demand that management adopt the famous "Weinstein formula," devised in 1993 by former senior editor Jeff Weinstein in hopes of restoring fairness to wage increases. Instead of increasing all employees' salaries by a fixed percentage, the proposal would award a progressive weekly increase to all employees, based on a complex formula, with slightly higher increases going to lower-paid workers. Union reps believe it is needed because of the yawning disparity between salaries of senior staffers and those of entry-level and longtime, low-pay employees.

The union is also presenting a package of "health and safety" demands. While some of these may sound frivolous to an outsider ("There shall be twenty [20] cubic feet per minute [CFM] per person of fresh air in all parts of The Village Voice offices at all times"), it seems like a no-brainer that the Voice should automatically provide adjustable keyboard trays to everyone, given the long-standing high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among its staff.

The union is determined to make progress on the Voice's affirmative action policy. According to senior editor Andrew Hsiao, spokesperson for the union's negotiating committee, minorities currently comprise 28.8 percent of the total staff, and a mere 9.7 percent of senior editors and staff writers. This is the first time the union has asked management to set a concrete goal for minority hiring, to wit: a 3.5 percent increase over the period of each consecutive contract.

"In the past," says Hsiao, "management has expressed its commitment to affirmative action, but progress has been minimal." He points out that the union is proposing a goal, not a quota, and that "if we increased minority representation by 3.5 percent every year, we might reach some measure of racial parity in about 10 years."

Asked about the possibility of a strike, Hsiao said, "Though we are trying to lower the temperature in the negotiating room, the passions are really high on our side. We're facing our own miniversion of media empire-building, with all the layoffs, temps, and talk of outsourcing our jobs— so if management doesn't respond to the job security demands, or tries to stiff us on wages and benefits, the chances of a strike remain high."

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