This month, the Newspaper Guild of Memphis will celebrate a rather unhappy anniversary. It's been four years since the union's contract expired, starting a painfully slow collective bargaining process with The Commercial Appeal management, which has repeatedly shown its intent to fight a battle of endurance and attrition in order to starve out the union. As if on cue, the CA's management has now decided to outsource a significant portion of its advertising layout department to India.
In 2005, Mark Watson, past-president of the Memphis Newspaper Guild, predicted that the CA would begin to outsource jobs sometime in the near future. He was a little premature, but he was correct to insist that the guild's collective bargaining agreement was the only thing protecting guild members from losing their jobs to outsourcing.
"The paper could outsource every position but one in every department," Watson told the Flyer. "I'm not saying that they have proposed this, but they could do it. You might have one person here in Memphis compiling data for classified advertising, and the rest would be in India or Estonia or Arlington, Texas."
Earlier this year, the CA laid off 15 truck drivers and outsourced the work to an Indiana-based delivery firm. Because of a side-letter agreement existing between management and the drivers and dating from the early 1970s, those workers weren't protected by the guild's contract.
"Of course, [the new company] hired back all the truckers but without benefits," says Linda Moore, the current guild president.
Last week, the CA's management kicked things up a notch when news leaked that the advertising layout department was bound for a slightly more exotic destination: India.
Outsourcing newspaper work isn't a new idea, though the notion remains controversial. Reuters, a multimedia news agency, has moved its photo desks in Canada and Washington, D.C., to Singapore. Several papers across the country have outsourced their printing, human resources, circulation, customer service, and advertising layout departments.
News of the CA's decision to outsource work to India comes at a time when the newspaper is reeling from a number of blows to both its credibility and its bottom line, including fallout from the company's recent decision to seek paid sponsors for editorial content.
The CA, which has undergone numerous content changes to cut costs and appeal to readers who haven't traditionally read the paper, is also bleeding circulation. In May, the Flyer reported a recent publisher's statement, obtained from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which contained some very bad news.
According to the statement, average weekday circulation for the six-month period ending in March 2007 was 146,000 copies, down almost 10 percent from the year before. The Sunday edition had seen almost a 15 percent drop.
"Morale is nonexistent on a number of levels," Moore says. "I don't feel as though we're any closer to getting a new contract. In fact, I feel very frustrated."
Moore's frustration is tempered by the fact that none of the roughly 20 people affected by the outsourcing will lose their jobs. The last contract, the terms of which are held in place by an "evergreen clause" that the CA management has repeatedly tried to eliminate or circumvent, prevents firing or laying off workers as the result of outsourcing.
"All of the work isn't being sent to India, and some of the workers will be moved to other projects," Moore explains. "But as all these workers eventually leave the company, they won't be replaced. ... Right now, [management] is testing the waters to see just how much they can get away with.
"[Outsourcing] will be a rallying cry," Moore says, expressing her hope that it will help to grow guild membership and fire up the existing members. "It will show members the value of our contract as the only thing standing between their jobs and the door."