When Peter Barbey, a member of one of America’s 50 richest families, bought the Village Voice in 2015, hopes were high for a financial and cultural revival of the legendary paper. Today, the company’s union negotiations suggest those hopes may have been misplaced.
The Voice, founded in 1955, was America’s first real alt-weekly. As alt-weeklies across the country have collapsed over the past decade, done in by the changing economics of media advertising, the Voice has experienced its fair share of business turbulence. It was bought by the New Times chain in 2005, sold to another media ownership group in 2012, and throughout that period suffered financial losses, staff departures, and constant turnover at the top. In late 2015, the man that many hoped would be a true savior emerged: Peter Barbey, whose family owns a multibillion-dollar portfolio of clothing brands including Nautica, Timberland, and North Face, and who himself already owned a newspaper in Pennsylvania, the Reading Eagle. Barbey swooped in seemingly from nowhere to buy the Voice, declaring that “I unequivocally believe there’s great value in the Village Voice brand.”
With his splashy purchase of a once-prestigious New York weekly that he vowed to revive, Barbey bore some resemblance to another man in the news: Jared Kushner, whose purchase of the New York Observer in 2006 helped springboard him into the upper echelon of New York City society, and then into the White House. Kushner also decimated the paper’s staff and reputation in the process. Voice employees hoped that Barbey’s tenure would turn out better. And Barbey, a self-proclaimed liberal who came from out of town, seemed intent on establishing himself as a real New York City media figure, not a dabbler. He took a New Yorker writer along with him as he house-hunted, eventually settling on a $26 million Greenwich Village apartment. (Peter Barbey did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
The atmosphere at the Voice, though, quickly soured. In January of 2016, Barbey hired Will Bourne, a respected, veteran editor, to run the paper—and then fired him seven months later. A cosmetic “relaunch” and the installation of an editor who came from Harper’s Bazaar (an unlikely pedigree, some felt, for someone leading the decidedly un-glossy Voice) have not altered the fundamental dilemma that has hobbled the paper for years: it may be a great legacy publication that still attracts devoted journalists, but it cannot escape its managerial and financial problems. As an owner, Barbey is, staffers say, very hands-on, even involving himself in editorial decisions. He is no longer perceived as the hero who will save the day. (One former editorial staffer characterized him as “Yosemite Sam meets Chauncey Gardner.”)
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The Voice’s staff has been unionized for 40 years. Throughout the past decade of turmoil, more than one staffer has credited the union with being one of the paper’s only stabilizing factors. Its last union contract was signed in 2014. That contract expires on June 30. Earlier this month, the union, which has shrunk to fewer than 20 members, began bargaining its new contract. Negotiations continue this week. Considering the fact that the Voice is now owned by someone with far deeper pockets than its owners of three years ago—someone who pledged significant investment in the paper, and who felt comfortable dropping $26 million on an apartment to serve as his home base as he restores it to glory—it would seem reasonable for the staff to expect at least modest gains in their new contract. (Village Voice employees are not among the most highly paid members of the New York media, if you were wondering.) “I think we were all expecting a pretty painless process,” one Voice employee told me.
That expectation would turn out to be misplaced. The management of the Voice has made its counterproposals to the union. According to an analysis of those counterproposals compiled by the union, these are just some of the alterations that management is proposing in the new contract.
Changes in staffing practices:
- No limitation on use of temporary employees.
- Eliminate ‘first consideration’ of internal applicants for promotion or transfer.
- Eliminate Affirmative Action article.
Changes in benefits:
- Eliminate time and a half for required work on holiday.
- Reduce child care leave from up to 6 months to FMLA minimum 3 months.
- Eliminate 2 weeks paid leave for newborn or newly adopted child.
- Eliminate Publisher shall not unreasonably deny requests for unpaid leaves of absence.
- Eliminate disability enhancement to maintain full salary when out for up to 8 weeks due to pregnancy.
- Eliminate duty to bargain over health care. We get what mgt gets, on their terms and conditions.
- Reduce sick days from 10 (plus 2 for employees with children under 12) to 5 for all.
- Eliminate child care payment of $2,000 per child to $4,000 max per year.
- Eliminate Educational Assistance Benefit $1,250 per year.
- Eliminate language requiring best efforts to distribute overtime equitably.
Changes in layoff practices:
- Eliminate layoff job security.
- Eliminate severance in the event of layoff.
- Eliminate 3 weeks’ notice or pay in lieu of for layoffs.
- Eliminate 4 weeks prior notice of ways employee must improve before termination.
Changes in the relationship between management and the union:
- Eliminate all information to union other than that provided when member first joins the union.
- Eliminate language that says Voice shall not outsource for purpose of eroding bargaining unit.
- Management shall require approval for union to visit premises.
- No newly created jobs shall be included in the union (including any on-line).
So, to recap, among the changes that the Village Voice’s extremely wealthy new owner who lives in a $26 million apartment would like to impose upon his handful of journalists, according to their union: Eliminating any effort at affirmative action; slashing child care leave, benefits to pregnant women and parents, and educational assistance; eliminating all severance pay; eliminating any ability of staffers to negotiate for their own health care; barring new workers from joining their colleagues in the union; and stopping union employees from visiting workers at work.
Peter Barbey, again, is a self-proclaimed liberal.
Current Voice employees, who agreed to speak only anonymously, were shocked at the aggressive nature of Barbey’s proposals. One noted that even Rupert Murdoch did not push this hard against the union when he owned the Voice in the 1970s and ‘80s. Multiple staffers remarked on the obvious disconnect between Barbey’s vow to restore the Voice’s valuable brand and his actions now. “A fair and reasonable contract would mean more than just the protection of our rights. It would be tangible proof that management actually wants to restore and support the paper’s integrity,” said one employee. “The Voice and its union have a long, proud history of being at the fore of political and cultural change here in New York, and beyond too. To use corporate speak, it would be ‘off-brand’ to say the least for management to undo that hard-earned reputation — especially in this political climate, when the paper should be operating at the height of its powers.”
Another employee was even more blunt about the stakes of this negotiation. “If Barbey gets what he’s asking for with this contract, it’ll toll the final death-knell for the Voice,” the employee said. “For the past 40 years, the contracts that union won have been at the forefront of positive social change. Long before gay marriage was recognized, when you couldn’t find another employer providing benefits to same-sex domestic partners, the Village Voice did, because of its union. Well before most mainstream media institutions were wringing their hands about their absence of newsroom diversity, the Village Voice was doing something about it, bound by its union to a commitment to affirmative action... So far it seems that Barbey wants to turn his back on that legacy, which made the Voice great in good times and kept it resilient in hard times.”
The online media industry, including our company, has been actively unionizing for two years now. The Village Voice was decades ahead of us all. The paper has survived a lot. Whether it can survive the latest Rich Guy Who’s Here to Help remains an open question.