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A Staredown of a "Lifetime"

The game of brinksmanship between the New York Times Co., and the Boston Globe's guild is coming to a head. At stake: The continued existence of New England's largest newspaper, first published in 1872.

With all other unions having agreed to concessions pending a formal vote by their members, the guild, which represents the newsroom employees, is holding out. While it has given the $10 million in concessions management demanded, it is unwilling to let go of a "lifetime guarantee" provision that affects over 500 former employees and 190 current ones.

The guild's latest offer was rejected last night, prompting its negotiators to leave the table as of this morning. More talks may resume tomorrow, but no resolution is likely unless the guild is willing to relent on this one issue.

That the guild is playing hardball, in the face of a threatened shutdown, is surprising. Elsewhere in the country, almost every union has quickly acquiesced to management demands given the fast unraveling of the newspaper business.

While the NYT Co. has backed off an earlier threat to file a plant closing notice, it's still not impossible for the paper to be shuttered. The Times paid $1.1 billion to acquire the Globe in 1993, and now it's expected to lose about $85 million this year at the paper. The circulation of the Globe has dwindled from 508,800 in 1993 to 382,500 today.

Dan Totten, president of the guild, said his union is negotiating in good faith. But the union's unwillingness to give in on the "lifetime guarantee" issue is not winning any friends or sympathies.

The idea of lifetime jobs seems hopelessly quaint in this era of Darwinian globalization, continuous technological disruption and profound economic uncertainty.

It also was born of arrogance on the part of publishers who thought their market supremacy would endure forever and arrogance on the part of unions who once wielded sufficient power to intimidate management into agreeing to this perfectly preposterous proposition.

Apart from federal judges and tinhorn dictators, no one has the luxury of a job for life. And no one should.

Across town at the Boston Herald, Howie Carr snickers:

Outside the employees themselves and a few limp bloggers, nobody cares about the Globe's demise. Let the epitaph be: Smug Is Not a Workable Business Plan. These pampered poodles assumed they had a monopoly. Nobody ever has a monopoly, at least not for long. ... One last thing to all my dear friends on the Boulevard.

We're not hiring.

Will the guild dare management to shut down the paper? Will the NYT Co. follow through with its threat? One thing we already know: Despite all of his liberal and union-friendly politics, Pinch Sulzberger is proving to be quite a capitalist when it comes to his own family business (as he should be).