THERE was a time when unions could shut down a newspaper. No more. Not even in New York, which is one of the biggest union towns of all. Today, ``New York's Hometown Newspaper,'' as the Daily News calls itself, has become a last stand in the war between unions and newspaper conglomerates. The stakes are high: With 1.2 million readers, the News has the largest circulation of any metropolitan papers in America.
But the 10 unions representing 3,000 employees may be unwilling to strike against a feisty management.
``It's a different world we live in now,'' says Barry Lipton, president of the Newspaper Guild of New York. ``I don't think there is any union president who wants to jeopardize his members if he doesn't have to.''
The paper has lost more than $115 million in the past 10 years on $4 billion in revenue, and the parent Tribune Company, which has owned the paper since 1919, says major concessions must be made if the paper is to survive.
``New York is the last stronghold for the newspaper unions,'' says John Sloan, vice president for human resources at the News. ``Other major cities - Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles - have already gone through what we're trying to gain from contract negotiations.''
Its contracts have expired, and management says any new agreements must include elimination of labor practices it considers archaic and wasteful. Well-paid employees, including pressmen, are accused of featherbedding, overhiring, and inefficiency.
Pressmen counter that high salaries are appropriate given the ancient equipment they work with and what they say are dangerous conditions. Six of the paper's 10 unions have all-male, all-white memberships, and the Tribune Company says this is a result of the unions' exclusive control over hiring.
The unions say the Tribune Company wants to force a strike at the paper, shut it down, and avoid paying nearly $100 million in severance pay and guaranteed wages. An alternative scenario has the Tribune Company selling the paper once it is either union-free or saddled with less-restrictive contracts.
Union leaders say the paper is losing money because of bad management and an unwillingness to invest a needed $300 million to $500 million in new equipment, especially printing presses.
``They blame labor, but they run the paper on presses over 40 years old in Dickens-like plants,'' says George McDonald, president of the Allied Printing Trades Council, which oversees all the unions. He blames the equipment for late deliveries.
``It seems the Tribune Company isn't really concerned with New York or the Daily News,'' Mr. McDonald says, pointing to heavy investments the company has made at its flagship Chicago Tribune, radio and television stations, and its Chicago Cubs team.
With the unions afraid to strike, the top brass are putting on heavy pressure to exact concessions. Last year, it sent editors and executives to a two-week crash training course at a sister paper in Fort Lauderdale in anticipation of a strike or lockout. Recent ads seeking possible replacements for distribution workers drew nearly 2,000 applicants.
In order to break solidarity among the unions, management has made several separate offers to individual unions and has hired a Nashville-based law firm that has a reputation as a newspaper ``union-buster.'' Both sides have hired public relations advisers to help win over employees and the public.
The other papers in town are sitting this one out. The competing tabloids, The Post and New York Newsday (a recent startup), are both losing money. The upscale New York Times is more of a regional paper with an entirely different constituency.
Both sides insist the News is not a dinosaur, and can be saved.
``Under correct management, it could be a very viable paper,'' says McDonald. ``I'm sure when the Tribune Company leaves, and sells the paper, another owner will get it back up.''
``We're not going to walk away from it and we're not going to sell,'' says Mr. Sloan. ``We're here to stay.''