Journalists Unite!

E S. Browning isn’t exactly Norma Rae. He’s no Trotskyite, either. He writes a dispassionate column about the markets for the Wall Street Journal’s “Money and Investing” section. In his bow tie, sweater vest with a little hole in the seam, and a blazer thrown over his shoulder in the sunshine, he wouldn’t stand out on a commuter-train platform of middle-class information professionals.

But on April 7, it was hard to miss Browning behind the barricades outside the Dow Jones headquarters in the World Financial Center. There were close to 100 Dow Jones employees with him, chanting ineptly (they kept trailing off), with signs around their necks (IS THIS THE WAL-MART JOURNAL?). If you happened by, Browning would make sure you knew what was going on. “This kind of thing has never happened here in these numbers,” he said.

“A lot of people confuse the paper’s reporters with its editorial page,” said business-travel columnist Ron Lieber, who had been blowing a whistle.

Which isn’t to say that the Wall Street Journal has turned into boot camp for class warriors. Most of the picketers were in suit jackets, checking their messages on their cell phones. It was clear by their uncomfortable smiles that none of them really wanted to be there—if it’s possible to picket in quotation marks, they were. Officially, they were protesting management’s contract offer—a small raise paired with a demand that they help pay for increased health-insurance costs. But they were motivated by the perception that something was changing irrevocably at a company known for being both meritocratic and paternalistic. Get them started and they’ll blame the dual monarchy of Dow Jones chairman and chief executive Peter Kann and his wife, Journal publisher Karen Elliott House. Especially after it was revealed in the company’s proxy report released a couple of weeks before that they both got huge pay raises—58 and 32 percent, respectively.

“Peter and Karen together got $5 million in salary, bonus, and stock,” said Browning to the assembled picketers. “Which, if you add it up, is what they want to take away from us in health care!”

Everybody booed.

Ask many Journal reporters what’s going on there, and you’ll not just get the rundown on a contract that was rejected by 85 percent of the union’s membership in January. You’re going to get an aggrieved accounting of ongoing management depredations, from the rollback of a 50-year-old (and generous, in the way corporate America was back in the fifties) profit-sharing program in 1999, to the elimination of the cafeteria. They want to talk about Telerate, Dow Jones’s failed Bloomberg-style information delivery system, or the disruptive way that the copy editors were marooned in the South Brunswick corporate campus (with its man-made lake in the shape of New Jersey) after the newsroom returned to the city in 2002.

“People said, ‘We’re doing our jobs, winning Pulitzers. Why are we the only ones sacrificing?’ ”

“When it came time to deal with the tough business climate of the last couple of years,” says Tom Lauricella, a “Money and Investing” reporter active in the union, “people looked around and said, ‘We’re doing our jobs, we’re winning Pulitzers, we’re not the ones screwing up. Why are we the only ones sacrificing?’ ”

In short, they were being treated the same way that rank-and-file white-collar corporate America has been treated for the past decade, with the decline of the corporate mommy state.

Mostly they blame Kann, a Pulitzer Prize winner who started the Asian Wall Street Journal. He has run Dow Jones since 1991. It’s not been easy: The company had to take a $1 billion write-down for Telerate, in 1998, just as the tech boom was fattening up the paper. More traumatically, it lost its newsroom on September 11, and then one of its star reporters, Daniel Pearl. On the other hand, the “Weekend Journal,” introduced in 1998, has proved to be a great success, helping float the paper through the downturn.

House is resented mostly for her lack of people skills. At 30, she became diplomatic correspondent and won a Pulitzer for her interviews with King Hussein of Jordan before moving to the business side (she and Kann used to commute together via helicopter).

On February 24, the union staged its first “action”—a demure, fifteen-minute work stoppage in newsrooms in New York and South Brunswick. It was more like a synchronized coffee break, but it sent a message. On March 2, several dozen reporters gathered at a coffee shop at noon and then showed up late. Paul Steiger, the paper’s editor, sent around an e-mail at 7 p.m. that night warning that “this is a slippery slope. This sort of job action is very risky and could leave us exposed in the event of major news.” Also, he warned, it wasn’t protected under federal labor laws, and “could expose the individuals involved to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.”

“Actions” have taken place at other bureaus, including picketing last month in Washington, D.C. A protest is planned for the company’s annual meeting on April 21, in the American Express building next door to Dow Jones’s headquarters, when shareholders will vote on a union proposal that the company’s chairman and chief executive positions be separated. A strike committee has formed.

“It’s a major cultural shock,” says Bernie Lunzer, a Newspaper Guild national rep. “In many ways, I see them crystallizing as a bona fide union, as opposed to looking at it as a sort of professional association.”

The Journal is facing the radicalization of its careerist, go-getter newsroom.

I had no time for the union until last fall,” says Browning, who worked at the Journal for 25 years before he started getting quoted in the media columns in the Post and the Observer.

In that, he wasn’t different from most reporters there. “I’m the most conservative Republican reporter in the newsroom,” says Wall Street reporter Charles Gasparino, known for his son-of-an-ironworker persona. “For me to join a union, they had to do something that I believed stepped so far over the line that I had to get involved.”

Dow Jones has been a journalist-friendly place. The New York Times might pay more, but the Journal’s benefits were better. The Independent Association of Publisher’s Employees was founded in 1937 as an in-house union. Historically, it hasn’t done much. It only has one full-time employee, and dues are too low for there to be a strike fund (and anyway, there’s never been a strike). In the nineties it became a local of the Newspaper Guild.

There’s always been a bit of a class rift in IAPE. When negotiations started last spring, nobody from the Journal was on the bargaining committee. “Nobody volunteered. It’s a lot of time; it’s a lot of going down to South Brunswick,” says “Marketplace” reporter Alex Frangos. So they were all surprised when the contract terms were sent around on November 20. Browning, whose wife had had breast cancer and who, as a consequence, had become sensitized to the necessity of having affordable and flexible health-care benefits, was incensed.

“He came out of nowhere,” said Frangos, and rallied the newsroom to fight it. “He’s not a rabble-rouser. He’s like the Roman general Cincinnatus, a humble farmer called to arms.”

Browning hatched the idea of telling the union’s board of directors the newsroom didn’t like the deal they were offered. So a group of “somewhat well-paid people with clothes from Barneys,” as one reporter who was there put it, took the train on December 6, a snowy Saturday, to a windowless rent-a-conference-room in New Brunswick to fight it. The 22-member board—many with blue-collar jobs—“were a little skeptical of us at first,” says Frangos, who said they had to “assert” themselves a bit to be able to speak.

“It was a real Manhattan-versus-Queens thing,” said an observer. “One woman had a New York Jets warm-up jacket.”

The newsroom hadn’t always followed through in the past with their promises to back the union. “The board members said, ‘Are you sure? Are you totally committed?’ ” said Frangos. “ ‘We can’t afford to reject this contract if you aren’t.’ ”

Negotiations resumed with Browning and Gasparino on the bargaining committee. So far, the company hasn’t budged much in terms of what it says it can afford, although Browning said it claimed “flexibility on some issues” at the April 14 session.

It’s hard to argue that the Journal is hurting journalistically. It won two Pulitzers this year, and in this time of Martha scandals and Tyco trials, it’s as good as it gets. But in the end this is about recruitment and retention. How important are the more experienced (and expensive) reporters? How do you keep reporters filing multiple times a day for the Website and world editions when they think they’re being taken advantage of?

There’s some feeling on the floor that the paper has become a poaching ground: Last week, Gasparino took an offer from Newsweek. The Times already stole health-care reporter Gardiner Harris, “Weekend Journal” editor Amy Virshup, and real-estate reporter Motoko Rich in the past year. More ominously, this winter, the Times hired popular Journal associate managing editor Larry Ingrassia to remake its business coverage. Some at the Journal are waiting for the call.

Journalists Unite!