The first strike in The Village Voice’s 53-year history seems a distinct possibility. Contract talks between the Voice’s employees and its owner, Village Voice Media, center on proposed cuts in health care coverage in the latest contract offer from management, which the union considers unacceptable.
“Management is asking for givebacks on our health care policy and on our 401(k)….We are adamant that there won’t be any givebacks here,” said Tom Robbins, a veteran staff writer at The Village Voice who covers labor issues, and who also serves as a shop steward with United Auto Workers Local 2110, which represents Voice staffers. “We pay through the nose. We pay co-payments that are very expensive for our members with children. They want more co-payments, they want more, more.”
Robbins said the union has had two meetings with management so far, but vowed that there would be a walkout if no settlement is reached.
“If we don’t get it, all bets are off,” Robbins warned. A reporter left a voicemail message with Christina Pettit, the Voice’s spokesperson, for comment on the negotiations.
The contract dispute is the latest in a series of conflicts between the staff of the nation’s oldest and largest alternative weekly and the Voice’s owners, based in Phoenix. Ever since the acquisition of The Village Voice by New Times, which later became known as Village Voice Media, in October 2006, the Voice has been buffeted by layoffs and cutbacks. In the last 14 months, the Voice laid off its “Press Clips” columnist, a sportswriter, a film critic, its managing editor, and, most recently, Deborah Jowitt, who had been the Voice’s dance critic for four decades.
Last week, San Francisco-based SF Weekly and parent company Village Voice Media asked a local Superior Court judge to overturn a decision that ordered VVM to pay $15.9 million to the other Bay Area alt-weekly, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, which began publication in 1966. The Guardian sued SF Weekly on charges that it engaged in predatory pricing designed to force it out of business.
Beyond the potentially damaging situation created the lawsuit, VVM’s long-term intentions at the Voice have been questioned after a dramatic series of layoffs nationwide, and specifically at The Village Voice. In the last three years, the Voice has gone through five editors-in-chief: Donald Forst, the paper’s editor-in-chief during the New Times merger, left shortly after the merger; his replacement, Doug Simmons, was fired after an internal scandal involving fabrications in reporting. Next, Erik Wemple from Washington City Paper was brought on, but quit within days of being hired in June 2006. David Blum served as editor-in-chief from September of 2006 until he was fired in March of 2007. (Blum is now the editor-in-chief of the New York Press.) Tony Ortega, previously an editor-in-chief of VVM papers in Kansas City and in Florida, has been the paper’s editor-in-chief since March of 2007, and has presided over much of the cutbacks.