Friday, September 17, 2010

Mandatory retirement and me

As I await the arrival of my first piddling pension check, with my checking account overdrawn and my credit cards maxed out thanks to two years and three months without a job in the newspaper industry, a couple of items, one from the Paleozoic Era of Journalism, the other a Facebook post, come to mind.

This will be a lengthy post, so if you're on deadline, Hasta la vista Mista, or Ms (you were expecting maybe Miss from a dinosaur like moi? Why, I'm so up to date I was going to tweet this blog post only it's about 276,000 characters too long. Of course, I could tweet it in installments, a la the New Yorker's long-ago capsule review of "The Fantasticks," which was in the form of another sentence, or part of a sentence, or part of a participle, from "Finnegan's Wake" each week until either the Fantasticks finally closed or James Joyce's estate ordered it to cease and desist.) But I desist, I mean digress.

Ironically, the two incidents are related. So called ink stained wretches the nation over are boo-hooing the demise of the newspaper industry but the newspapers I worked for were demising as far back as I can remember, which is roughly 42 years. New York City once had an astounding number of competing newspapers, morning newspapers, afternoon newspapers, evening newspapers, and all of those newspapers had several editions, bulldog editions, late sports editions, early sports editions, 2 o'clock cup of coffee editions. There was a World and a Tribune and a Sun and a Journal and a Herald and a Telegram and the Post and the Daily News and probably a couple of others I'm forgetting (like the New York Times!), and none of them were owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

The first night I went to work at the old Journal-American building which the New York Post had bought I took a taxi from the subway. When I asked the cabbie if he knew where the Journal-American building was he said, "You mean the Journal building?" He knew it from before it merged with the American. Newspapers in New York City in the first half of the 20th century did more folding than an old lady in a Chinese laundry.

When I left the Post to work at the Daily News, my new colleagues on the copy desk were making jokes about the small size of their Christmas bonuses. I had never even heard the word "bonus" at the Post. And my new News colleagues were lamenting the days, not long past, when if a staffer even thought he or she might have to call in sick, he or she would call ahead and the paper would call in an extra "just in case."

When I left the Daily News and arrived at the Bergen Record it was only a matter of time before profit-sharing, a term I had never heard used at the Daily News or the Post, was discontinued, and there was even a round of layoffs about 15 years ago. At the time the newspaper industry was healthy by today's standards, so I thought there must be a black cloud following me around, sort of like Linus in the "Peanuts" comic strip. I'm sure some of my former supervisors at the Record would agree, as they have clutched at every straw in the book, if you'll pardon the mangled metaphor, to explain the paper's financial difficulties.

Which brings me, by way of a poor transition, to my former colleague's Facebook post of a couple of days ago. He posted a link to an article about the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he used to work. The Inquirer is in bankruptcy court, and a deal to sell it to its creditors was torpedoed because the Teamsters Union, which represents the drivers, refused to void the paper's contractual obligation to pay into a pension fund and create 401(k)s instead.

A commenter on the Facebook page wrote "We'll survive no matter what," and my former colleague wrote "You damn well better."

I applaud the Teamsters for taking a stand. The bankruptcy court will tear up the contract anyway. I didn't dare make such a comment on Facebook as I would hate for him to think I'm rooting for all those "Inky" staffers to wind up in the same boat as me, which I'm not. But the action of the Teamsters, and the pending arrival of that piddling pension check, a double dose of dreaded "R" words -- recession and retirement -- made me think of the time about forty years ago, I can't recall the precise year, when the picket lines were up outside the New York Post, owner Dorothy Schiff was threatening to close the paper if the unions struck, and only two items remained on the table: mandatory retirement and me.

First, mandatory retirement. Even then, most people couldn't afford to retire. There was one writer at the Post, Archer Winston, who was 92 if he was a day and he still wrote a skiing column. Okay, maybe he was only 78 but he sure looked 92. But there were many workers who would be out of a job, for whatever reasons they were still working, whether it was due to a lack of funds to retire or because it kept them from being henpecked 24 hours of the day, if mandatory retirement were accepted. (One of my all time favorite Daily News headlines, "YANKS WISC. MILWAUKEE," was written by a copy editor who should have retired years earlier but couldn't stand spending that much time with his wife).

I forget what the proposed mandatory retirement age was, maybe 62, maybe 65. As newspaper work is for the most part cerebral if Damon Runyon were still alive he'd probably still be writing for a newspaper. Even back then, this was a marvelous ploy to get rid of longtime workers with high salaries and lots of vacation and replace them with younger, lower-paid workers.

And now for "and me." Circa  1969 I was working as a clerk in the sports department of the Post. That department was legendary, probably the best in the nation, with writers like Jimmy Cannon and Milt Gross and Larry Merchant and Vic Ziegel, who still writes a column for the Daily News and is as sharp as ever. The writers would cover their games and file their stories with Western Union, which sent the stories over a teletype machine. But that ol' divvel economy was nipping at the heels of Western Union -- oops, another mangled metaphor, if I were paying me to write this blog I'd give me a virtual rap on the knuckles -- and it eliminated the "night press rate." Overnight the cost of filing the stories with Western Union increased sevenfold. Whether it went from $1 a page to $7 a page or 2 cents a word to 14 cents a word I couldn't tell you, all I know is "sevenfold."

Step back a little further in time with me to seventh grade at Joan of Arc Junior High School when for one period a day my class took typing. Little did I know how that would influence my life. Okay, fast forward to 1969, zzzzzzziippp. The Post bought two reel to reel tape recorders, and soon I was recording one sportswriter while transcribing another. I would arrive at 8 p.m., and it was not unusual, before the first fax machine was invented, for me to type up 21 stories in the course of a shift, which often lasted until 5 a.m. And if you thought those early fax machines were a time saver, fuhgeddabouddit, the print quality on the thermal paper was so poor that I had to strain my eyes and type them over anyway.

The Post was a union shop then, and jobs were classified as Group this and Group that. A copy person, for instance, the lowest rung on the totem pole, was Group 1. A copy editor, the highest rung on the totem pole below management, was Group 10. I was Group 4.

The record/transcribe setup, I'm sure, saved the paper a bundle of money. So much so that the news desk on occasion asked if we could handle a couple of stories for them. Not a problem, especially since it was compensated with a bit of overtime.

Soon, however, the news desk created a position similar to mine to handle the three to five stories a night that news reporters phoned in. That position, which entailed a fraction of the transcribing that I was doing, was created at Group 5. I filed a grievance with the union.

The grievance was never quite resolved, and wound up as a contract issue in a protracted round of labor negotiations. The union assured me I had an airtight case, although I was sure I would make a pretty good bargaining chip for some other hard-to-resolve issue.

I don't remember the date, but the contract went down to the wire, and talks were extended. They weren't going well, and the picket lines went up, although the workers were not yet officially on strike. At this point, two issues remained unresolved: Mandatory retirement and Aaron Elson, which is how my case was referred.

Finally, Dorothy Schiff relented on mandatory retirement, an issue worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. The union negotiators said, "How about Aaron Elson," an issue worth maybe fifty dollars a week. Dorothy refused to budge. The union, god bless 'em, budged. I don't begrudge them that.

A few weeks later I was given a tryout as a copy editor, so the issue was essentially  moot.

The contract negotiations were in September, and by the holiday season I was editing copy instead of typing, Group 10, pretty good money. Dorothy Schiff, who would soon sell the Post to Rupert Murdoch, made an appearance at the Christmas party. My editor, Ike Gellis, asked if I would like to meet her.

He brought me over and introduced me. "This is Aaron Elson," he said.

Dorothy Schiff, without saying a word, promptly turned and walked away.

Without unions like the Teamsters, newspapers have long since replaced mandatory retirement with age discrimination. Do the math. Fifty-eight years old plus five weeks' vacation equals ten-four, out the door, or so it was in my case.

The Philly Inquirer is a wonderful newspaper. I hope it survives. From time to time I hear about former colleagues who are still employed by the newspaper that laid me off. Their salaries have been slashed, their workloads increased, and their morale has never been lower. They have been warned that posting on certain blogs critical of the newspaper is a fireable offense.

That's why I applaud the Teamsters. Sometimes you have to take a stand, whatever the cost.


  1. A business would not carry a newspaper, television or radio everywhere, but would be accessible to internet for sure. It is this easy accessibility of internet that proves to be the first and foremost benefit of online news.