Newspaper Workers Denied Benefits

With a daily circulation of approximately 17,000, the traditionally right-wing Antelope Valley Press has proudly served the Palmdale high desert community (about 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles) since its founding, way back in 1915.  The AVP is the largest selling daily newspaper in the Valley.

But on August 1, AVP management informed its copy desk employees that their workload would be reduced to a maximum of 39 hours a week, thus making them ineligible for benefits.  Alas, only full-time, 40-hour a week employees would continue to qualify for benefits (Sorry, folks….you fell one hour short!). 

This craven announcement was made by AVP’s vice-president and general manager and was first reported on Jim Romenesko’s media blog.  Instead of trying to maintain benefits by exploring creative alternatives (e.g. moving employees into another group plan, backloading wages, pursuing voluntary/mandatory furlough days, etc.), AVP management invented an arbitrarily loophole and then exploited it.

What makes the move particularly disturbing is not simply that loyal, long-term staffers were abruptly stripped of their benefit package and banished to an economic wilderness, but that this sort of thing is no longer rare enough to be shocking.  It no longer elicits outrage.  Instead of public protests or calls for government action, these company maneuvers now draw responses like, “Hey, welcome to the club, pal,” or “It could be worse….at least you still have a job.”

Of course, the bitter irony is not that this dreadful battering has become systemic, but that it’s occurring within the larger context of sociological triumph.  Socially, things are improving.  Gays and lesbians now have equal rights; racial and ethnic minorities can’t be denied jobs simply because they’re not white; female secretaries can’t be routinely groped by piggish male bosses; schoolyard bullying has been rightly addressed. There are dozens more “triumphs” one could mention.

Not that bias and victimization no longer occur, because obviously they still do (if you happen to be a Moslem living in the U.S.—or a Sikh that people think is a Moslem, or a Mexican that people think is an Arab—good luck to you).  But, clearly, since the 1950s, no one can  deny that there has been a profound emphasis placed on personal liberty and individual rights.  When it comes to individual rights, expectations remain sky-high.

Unless those expectations happen to involve economics.  Unless they speak to our economic future. Because when it comes to “economic rights,” worker expectations have not only been dramatically lowered, they are dangerously close to entering a state of free-fall.  If this were a horror movie, workers expectations would be seen to have mutated into some horrific creature that not only terrorizes the community, but devours the mad scientist who created it. 

To make matters worse, instead of being terrified—instead of being so frightened of the future that we set fire to our hair and go running into the streets—we hear people (not plutocrats but regular working folks) mindlessly parroting those lame, half-baked macroeconomic overviews that not only excuse the naked greed that’s been set loose upon the land, but actually defend it. 

When standards and expectations get lowered beyond a certain point, all is lost.  Yet people glibly say that decent, full-time jobs are anachronisms, that we have to recalibrate, that we have to readjust, that the days where sons and daughters followed parents into well-paying union jobs in factories and mills are over, and that we now live in a “global economy.”  Okay, fine.  We’re all fucked.  But where’s the outrage? 

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.