Once upon a time, the Newhouse family issued its employees a written guarantee that came to be called “The Pledge”: a promise of lifetime job security in exchange for keeping unions out of the family’s newspapers. But as the industry’s 30-percent profit margins evaporated, The Pledge went the way of the pica pole, and employees were let go in droves without so much as a shop steward’s shoulder to cry on.

Now, some laid-off employees of the Newhouse-owned New Orleans Times-Picayune are telling their corporate owner and the newspaper “not so fast.” Eight longtime employees who lost their jobs in late 2012 when the Newhouse-controlled Advance Publications took its draconian “digital first” business strategy to the newspaper, filed suit recently against the Newhouse-controlled Advance Publications and the Times-Picayune.

The former employees allege their terminations violated federal age discrimination laws and the longstanding Pledge, which guaranteed job security at nearly two dozen daily newspapers owned by Advance. The former employees were 46-to-59 years old, with a combined tenure of more than 165 years, when they lost jobs ranging from reporter to warehouse worker. An analysis of documents the company supplied to all victims of the mass lay-off showed that the age group was both the newspaper’s pro-rata largest, and the hardest-hit by the workforce reductions. Overall, 30 percent of the newspaper’s total workforce was eliminated, including almost half the newsroom.

An individual familiar with the lawsuits said more are expected, but that the first ones filed were regarded as the legally strongest among employees willing to take on their former employer. Advance principal Steven Newhouse and Times-Picayune Publisher Ricky Mathews didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Often represented to employees as an extraordinary worker benefit, The Pledge, in fact, had its roots in the antipathy of the late Advance founder S.I. “Sam” Newhouse, Sr. toward organized labor. “I refuse to stand by passively and allow any union to ‘bust’ me,” he wrote in A Memo to My Children, a thin, self-published memoir that is apparently the only personally penned record of his life and career.

After acrimonious and sometimes violent contract negotiations and strikes at Advance-owned newspapers in New York, Oregon, Missouri, and Ohio in the 1930s through the mid-1960s, Sam Newhouse, apparently in consultation with his son, Donald, is believed to have crafted the Pledge. (The Newhouses have declined to talk to reporters and authors about the Pledge, including me when I was researching my recently released book about the “digital first” changes at the Times-Picayune and other Advance newspapers.)

Over the years, the Pledge became “so well-known throughout the newspaper industry that it was almost considered legendary,” according to a 2009 lawsuit by former Mobile, AL, Press-Register Publisher Howard Bronson, who sued after he was dismissed from his $745,000-a-year post at the Advance paper while The Pledge was still in force. (The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount in April 2011.)

When originally instituted in the mid-1960s, The Pledge explicitly promised employees that they would not lose their jobs “because of technological changes or economic conditions so long as the newspaper continues to publish and [employees] are willing to retrain for another job, if necessary.”

It was modified in 2008 to cover only permanent, non-union employees of Advance’s daily newspapers “published in newsprint form.” The addition of this fine print set the stage for the arrival of the digital initiative, which began in 2009 at the Newhouse-owned Ann Arbor News in Michigan. Layoffs were now technically permissible under the still-in-force Pledge because that newspaper went from daily to twice-weekly. And in July 2009, 214 jobs were eliminated at the Ann Arbor News.

Advance rescinded The Pledge altogether in February 2010, when the newspaper industry was deep into its long and ugly nosedive. “We felt that it was the right thing to communicate to people that we could no longer afford not having the flexibility to do something if the revenue challenges continue,” Steven Newhouse told The New York Times in August 2009. “I think the policy was meant for a time when the newspaper business had ups and downs, but was relatively stable. It was not meant for a time when our newspapers, like others, are struggling to survive.”

The “flexibility” would mean involuntarily layoffs, which, other than those in Ann Arbor, had never taken place at any Advance newspaper. However, they began in short order and on a staggering scale at company newspapers in Alabama, Michigan, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. By September 2013, “digital first” had claimed about 1,600 newspaper jobs from Portland, OR, to Mobile, AL.

Rebecca Theim was a reporter at the Times-Picayune from 1988-94. Her book, Hell and High Water: The Battle to Save the Daily New Orleans Times-Picayune, was published in October by Pelican Publishing Co. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaTheim.