I shouldn’t have been nervous.
After all, it was just a meeting of coworkers where I could get a beer, maybe play some pool, meet new people.
I wasn’t like I was headed to a ghetto to cover a riot. I was going to my first union meeting in Youngstown, Ohio.
I was curious but uneasy, having never belonged to a union before. I have a habit of talking too much in new situations and I knew it would be easy to put my foot in my mouth. To me, stalwart union members were notoriously tough. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., where steel had been the city’s lifeblood and the unions had worked hard — and fought hard — for their goals.
Youngstown was only about two hours from Pittsburgh, so I suspected the union landscape was similar. As a new reporter for The Vindicator, I figured the union expected new workers to attend the first meeting after hiring.
So there I was in the Spring of 1988, walking into the social club where Local 11 had its meetings and kicking myself for not studying up. I didn’t know strike history. I didn’t know any current issues of debate. I didn’t even know the names and titles of the local leadership.
Turns out, I beat myself up for nothing. There was no pressure. There was no test. People were friendly and the beer was cold.
I was taken aback, though, at one point during the official meeting. I think it was the only time a reporter spoke up with any sort of problem or concern to relate.
This guy complained, but not about something you might expect. Bad equipment? Poor working conditions? Abuse by an editor? Nope. None of the above. He was upset about one particular aspect of a newsroom-wide remodeling project that cost — if I recall correctly from that many years ago — $1 million. The project brought new desks, comfy chairs, offices with glass doors and fancy cubicles. But, as this reporter related, it also brought a sophisticated secret system to allow management to eavesdrop on unionized employees.
He believed — and he wasn’t alone — that the company could now spy on reporters and photographers under the guise of a sound suppression system. I was so surprised that I’m not sure I understood all the specifics of his complaint even as he related it, let alone as I try to recount it all these years later.
But I do know the complaint was discussed, duly logged in the union meeting minutes and noted as a matter worth investigating. I know this in part because I couldn’t resist asking other reporters more about it over the next few days. While some were surprised that this particular reporter spoke up at a meeting, all had heard the rumor and no one was calling it ridiculous — at least not to a new reporter like me (they were not sure if I could be trusted).
The managing editor, Paul Jagnow, wasn’t so shy.
He penned a memo entitled “MANAGEMENT EAVESDROPPING” that came out shortly after that union meeting. It dripped sarcasm and anger.
He wrote that he first thought the talk of eavesdropping was a joke but then heard from a staffer that “rumors were becoming more prevalent, even bizarre.” He wrote the staffer was surprised that “presumably intelligent people would be taken in by such manure, much less wallow in it at a Guild meeting.”
Rich with criticism for those doing “counter-productive rumor-mongering,” Jagnow’s memo addressed what he mockingly called “burning concerns.” No, he said, the sound suppression system isn’t hidden in a secret room with two tape recorders and it doesn’t use its “speakers” to intercept conversations. In reality, it cost $10,000, he said, and was installed to minimize “white noise” distractions for reporters and editors.
“The system uses one-way speakers — outbound only. They’re about the same as those on a home or car stereo,” Jagnow wrote, “and I don’t know any way to get around using them. If you don’t like them, blame Marconi.”
Other concerns, Jagnow said, centered on rumors that: intercoms in the photo department were also listening devices; a special button labeled TAP on the telephone system allowed managers to listen to employees’ phone conversations; and a new computer system had the capacity to measure the amount of copy written by individual reporters.
Jagnow took special delight in addressing the TAP button. “I love this one,” he wrote. “If such a function existed, do you really think we’d engrave it on the phone cradel for all to see?” Explaining that the TAP button is used to transfer calls, and only that purpose, Jagnow included this doozy of a one-line slapdown. “The person laboring under this delusion is really too stupid to work for this news department.”
Other lines in the memo stung, too.
On the photo department intercoms: “No manager I know has the time, inclination or pain threshold required to monitor darkroom gab.” Dismissing the claim that reporters’ production would be measured, the managing editor sardonically presupposed the punishment that the guild would worry about: “Reporters who miss their quotas are presumably taken to the secret room and beaten.”
The memo, though cocky and, some would argue, threatening, contained a few lines of resignation, like it was written from a trench in a longrunning, stalemated war. “Nothing I’ve written here will, of course, deter the self-serving few who thrive on disharmony and impute ulterior movies to anything the company does. They are, of course, beyond reason or appeal, for their purpose in life is to make the rest of us as miserable and paranoid as they. To them, I will simply mention that the door swings both ways,” Jagnow wrote.
“No one proposes to hold you captive in the secret room.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but my decision to attend that union meeting proved wise. It was unsettling to start a job knowing the rank and file — my brethren — distrusted management to the point of looking for ulterior motives in a newsroom upgrade. But, management’s decision to fire back with a Gatling gun of a memo was telling, too.
I lasted seven years at the Vindicator, before moving on to a new job in Pennsylvania. But I worked in a small Vindicator bureau much of that time, where we could avoid many of the tiffs and squabbles that developed between reporters and managers at the main office. The rank and file came close to striking once while I was there. As negotiations soured, we walked practice picket lines and discussed strategy. I saw workers anxious to confront management, not worried. They looked excited about striking, not afraid. You let anger and mistrust build long enough and people will do strange things.
It’s a shame, really, because I’m sure that everyone — or nearly everyone — at that place wanted to chase down the news, edit it well and present it with style to our customers. Every day.
That’s a lot harder without a consistently high level of trust, respect and collaboration. But, to get there, coworkers have to be willing to talk problems out, face-to-face. Instead, too often, we take the easy way out. We retreat to our cohorts, sit with only our peers. We head to the executive conference rooms or the bars or the union halls and we commiserate, exaggerate, gossip and criticize. We don’t invite the other side.
It’s ironic that my first dealings with the guild and management in Youngstown centered on complaints about secret listening.
If you ask me, that place — at least during that time — would have been better off with more listening. Not less.
Many people liked to hear themselves talk — or their memos read. They had no interest in hearing the other side at all.