Embattled Maariv Journalists Approve Reforms Proposed by Publisher

Narrow majority of journalists in favor of plan, which would see operations move to Jerusalem and shareholders pump cash into ailing daily.

Maariv journalists voted Wednesday night to support the modified recovery plan proposed by the embattled paper’s publisher, Shlomo Ben-Zvi, but only by a narrow margin.

Maariv’s management and the Journalists Association were due to start negotiations Thursday to finalize the deal, after which shareholders will - according to management - invest tens of millions of shekels to keep the daily afloat.

Ninety-nine journalists participated in the vote, with 56 supporting the plan and 43 opposing it. Earlier Wednesday evening, it had looked like a larger majority would support the plan - especially after criticism leveled at the intransigent conduct of the workers committee and the Histadrut labor federation toward management. Consequently, many were surprised by the large number of votes against the plan.

Ben-Zvi bought Maariv in September 2012 from Nochi Dankner's IDB group and has reportedly invested NIS 50 million in the troubled daily. The publisher also owns the right-leaning daily Makor Rishon.

Wednesday's secret ballots were cast at the paper’s Tel Aviv offices. Journalists who couldn’t be on site were asked to state their position over the phone. Afterward there was a recount of the cast ballots, showing that the plan had gained a majority.

It seems that some employees who opposed the plan did so primarily because of the upcoming move to Jerusalem or because they thought opposing the plan would lead to a better deal with Ben-Zvi.

Although Maariv’s management and Journalists Assocation representatives started talks Thursday, everything still depends on the employees at the printing press and their decision on Ben-Zvi’s recovery plan. Right now, the printers oppose it.

At a meeting held on Sunday, Ben-Zvi proposed dismissing 25 employees, moving the editorial staff to Jerusalem (a move that will cause the resignation of other employees), and making a differential cut of 5-15 percent in the pay of everyone earning NIS 6,500 or more a month.

It appears, though, that terms in these sections of the agreement will result in changes that favor the employees. For example, instead of completely doing away with expense reimbursements, a flat NIS 300 reimbursement payment will be applied.

The paper’s administrative employees, who have formed a union under new leadership, voted for Ben-Zvi’s original recovery plan Wednesday morning, and will embark on steps to enhance efficiency. After the agreement with the employees, the sides are expected to start talks to finalize the agreement among all sides.

The only major hurdle left is the printing press workers. The press is expected to shutter any day now, leaving its 50 employees jobless. According to the collective agreement, Ben-Zvi will be obligated to keep the employees on for another 10 months. However, he has stated that he will not be able to keep the press in operation, which could lead to the paper’s shutdown.

Maariv’s management has made the recovery plan and cash infusion contingent on an agreement that also includes the printing press employees. The latter group voted on the proposed plan Wednesday and turned it down by a large majority. The talks among the two sides ended because Ben-Zvi has not paid July’s salaries; the employees say they are unwilling to be “held hostage” by the management.

Also Wednesday, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini met with Ben-Zvi to discuss ways to ensure greater efficiency. At the end of the meeting, Eini told reporters: “Our goal is to save the paper and ensure the employees’ livelihood. The atmosphere at the meeting was good. The owner is proposing a recovery plan focusing on enhancing efficiency. If the employees vote for it, intensive negotiations between the owner and workers committee will begin Thursday morning to finalize the deal. If the employees choose to vote for a different proposal, I’ll respect that decision, too. I am here to serve the employees.”
 

Ofer Vaknin