A Long, Hot Summer for Newspaper Unions

By: Mark Fitzgerald and Joe Strupp

This is turning out to be a long, hot summer for newspaper unions.

At the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Newspaper Guild members are publicly preparing to move beyond their recent byline strike to a job walkout. Guild members at The Providence (R.I.) Journal are soliciting pledges for a subscription boycott. Teamster circulation workers at The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch are warning that their backs have been forced to the wall by management’s sweeping cutback demands. And in cities as diverse as Boston, Toledo, St. Louis and Honolulu, unions representing newsrooms, business offices, mailers or pressmen say they are fed up with working a year or more without a contract.

Even getting a contract doesn’t necessarily bring an end to discontent, as Baltimore-Washington Newspaper Guild members demonstrated vividly last month. After voting by a three-to-one margin to approve their new pact with The Sun in Baltimore, union members immediately endorsed a statement that they had accepted the four-year deal “under bitter protest” and condemning owner Tribune Co. for its “demeaning and destructive” behavior. As they left the vote, many members threw their copies to the ground in contempt.

The newspaper industry is going through a divisive period of labor relations, but newspaper unions are not alone. Some 8,000 union carpenters walked off construction sites in the Pacific Northwest on June 24. United Food & Commercial Workers union members are threatening a strike against Jewel Food Stores, the big Midwestern supermarket chain.

And Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America — the parent union of the Newspaper Guild — says 75,000 workers in 12 states might walk off their jobs at Verizon Communications on Aug. 2, if the telecom giant doesn’t stop blocking unionization efforts at its wireless operations.

For all the company they have in misery, newspaper unions — and the publishers who face them across the bargaining table — share a unique history that forces them to examine a pressing question: Is the current restiveness simply a phase resulting from the pressure of an economic downturn, or does it portend the kind of fundamental restructuring of the workplace that the industry experienced during the 1970s and 1980s?

This history occupies the third seat whenever management and labor sit down together. Depending on vantage point, that period ushered in either a welcome new age of efficiency for newspapers, or a dark age of dwindling wages and manning levels that led to the near-disappearance of some once-powerful production unions.

Back then, the biggest impetus to workplace change was technology, especially the introduction of computerized composition that doomed the traditional work of union typographers. These days, some experts say, labor at newspapers is far more likely to be affected by the wrenching changes in the larger economy, among them globalization and deregulation; the relentless pressures on productivity and costs, and the centripetal force of consolidation.

Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and also a consultant to unions. He argues that newspaper unions today are experiencing pressures that are both cyclical and, as they say in MBA classes, secular: “We’re kind of stuck at this … intersection between secular or structural changes in the economy — the lack of real growth of good jobs and the increased global competition more and more workers are facing — and the cyclical economic downturns. To mix a metaphor, it’s like a needle stuck in the groove of an LP (record), and it just keeps grinding away.”

One new economic factor that may prove bad news for newspaper unions, Rachleff says, is the decision by the FCC to allow newspapers to buy radio and TV stations in the same market. In many cities, broadcast is an increasingly non-union business, which he says could prove contagious: “Over the long haul, it’s non-unionism that spreads.”

Working climate turns colder

Linda Foley, the president of The Newspaper Guild, sees not a new era but the continuation of a long industry trend: “It’s not a sea change. Tough labor relations, and this propensity to union-busting, is something we’ve seen in newspapers for a long time — ever since I’ve been president here, it’s something I’ve had to deal with … I would say the political climate does embolden (newspaper publishers) more, though.”

The Guild’s membership has held steady at 34,000 nationwide for the better part of the past two decades. The overwhelming majority of members are newsroom employees.

An attorney for Seyfarth Shaw, the Chicago law firm that often represents the management side of newspapers, also views recent developments as continuation of a longer trend rather than anything especially new. “I think this is just companies doing the kind of blocking and tackling they need to do in order to operate smartly in a challenging time,” says Jeremy Sherman. “Companies are realizing that they face new kinds of competitive challenges and they have to adjust.”

Negotiations, therefore, remain a test of strength — which is why union leaders are hardly ready to throw in the towel.

Joe Molinero heads the newspaper industry division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America. At unionized newspapers, the Teamsters local usually represents the most workers — and almost always is the only union publishers fear could pull off a successful strike.

Here’s his take on newspaper industry labor relations: “You just can’t generalize, because at any given time, it all depends on who you’re dealing with. For instance, we have contracts with Gannett (Co., Inc.) papers all over the country. At some of the places, we have a very good relationship with the employer. We get good wages and benefits, and we give them relief when it’s possible. But there are other Gannett papers we have terrible problems with.”

But as the Teamsters have discovered in this new labor climate, it can be awfully tough to know who will prove to be an antagonist. At the Sun in Baltimore, where management and the Guild contended so noisily right up to the contract’s expiration deadline, the Teamsters wrapped up their new four-year pact two months ago. Local 355 President Denis Taylor says members were “very happy” with the contract, in which the newspaper agreed for the first time to pick up all health care costs.

But the Teamsters are in the fight of their life right now at the Columbus Dispatch, a turn of events that has Molinero scratching his head. “We have always had a good relationship with the Wolfe family (the owners),” he says. “We’ve given them everything they’ve wanted, just about … I don’t understand why they are taking such a hard approach.”

The Dispatch is following the industry trend of moving its circulation method to a central distribution system, which significantly cuts the number of drivers needed. Molinero says the union has offered to eliminate as many as 35% to 40% of the current Teamster jobs. The newspaper’s response has been to guarantee jobs only to some named workers, which the Teamsters unit sees as a formula for its eventual demise at the Dispatch.

“It has been a tough battle,” says attorney Joseph Pass, who is representing Teamsters Local 284 drivers: “We used to get lifetime job guarantees, and those don’t happen anymore. Unions are having to become more stiff in their positions. They don’t just chip away anymore, they take a meat cleaver.”

Dispatch President and Associate Publisher Mike Curtin says the offer the Teamsters rejected would have provided a $50,000 severance package and 18 months of medical benefits to laid-off workers. He also said former drivers would be given preference for new independent contracting delivery jobs that will open up for single-copy delivery.

“I believe we work hard to have good relations with our drivers,” he says. “When you are talking about workforce reductions, it isn’t easy. But I do not think we have soured our relationship with the drivers.”

Management: Take it, or else

Soured relationships, however, are an increasing fact of life in newspaper industry relations. The Newspaper Guild, for instance, sees the bitter Sun negotiations in Baltimore — with Tribune Co. recruiting and training replacement journalists and salespeople from its other papers during the talks — as a sad sign of things to come across the entire industry.

Says Guild President Foley: “It does not bode well for the future, if this is their kind of approach to collective bargaining, pitting workers from one place against those at another to threaten job security. The employees had a choice of going on strike and having their jobs taken away, or accepting these draconian proposals — they chose not to jump off the cliff.”

As unions see it, that’s often the choice they are given. The days of significant give-and-take over wages, health benefits and retirement pensions may be gone for good, with newspaper executives seeking to extract as much power as possible.

“Unions are facing real challenges at this point, between the economy and the era of corporate greed,” says Steve Richards, president of the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents 1,200 employees at The Boston Globe who have been working without a contract since the end of 2000. “We are just trying to hold our ground as best we can.”

The Globe is equally determined to dig up some foundations of union contracts. Among the paper’s demands is the elimination of seniority as layoff protection and the establishment of two new pay classifications for some ad sales people and reporters, both at lower rates. In addition, the paper is seeking to allow non-Globe employees at sister newspapers also owned by The New York Times Co. to sell advertising.

Unions are hearing similar demands from papers across the country. “The challenge for companies is to have contracts that allow for flexibility in the marketplace,” says Jill Taylor, vice president of employee relations for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, which is negotiating with three of its eight unions — the guild, machinists, and typographers. “The market is more and more competitive, and with non-union competitors. It is broader than just newsprint these days.”

A key demand Pioneer Press management is making is an end to strike sympathy provisions that allow union members to refuse to cross picket lines of other bargaining units at the paper. “The scuttlebutt is that management really wants to eliminate the unionized mailers,” says Rachleff, the Macalester College professor. “It’s pretty impressive to see the Newspaper Guild holding firm, because it’s really about them trying to protect someone else.”

Management’s style of negotiating has changed at many papers as well.

At The New York Times, where the New York Newspaper Guild has been without a contract since January, management has been pressing to end the paper’s coveted no-layoff protection. Guild Unit Chair Lena Williams says the newspaper’s negotiating approach is getting tougher. She blames much of it on the increasing corporate ownership of newspapers, exemplified by The New York Times Co., which owns 18 other daily newspapers, eight television stations, and two radio stations.

“It used to be that people at the newspapers were doing the negotiations,” Williams says. “People who started out there, and worked their way up. You were dealing with people you saw in the cafeteria and rode in the elevator with. Now you have outside labor law firms doing it. It will not go back to the way it was, ever, unless we change the state of media companies.”

Pressure on pressmen

Tim Schick, administrator at The Providence Newspaper Guild, which has been negotiating for a new contract at The Providence Journal since late 1999, agrees. Corporatization of negotiations, he says, can make things less cordial. “Management feels they have a stronger hand at the bargaining table,” argues Schick, who is also involved in the first Guild negotiations at the Worcester, Mass. Telegram & Gazette. “A lot of it depends on the local dynamics, which places will give management the upper hand and which will have a strong union.”

At the recent Mid-Year Media Review, those chains with unions were determined to show a strong hand. A typical comment came from Robert Jelenic, chairman, president and CEO of Journal Register Co., where about 25% of the workforce is unionized: “The Guild has been negotiating really hard the past couple of years, but most companies, including ours, are taking a tough stance.”

For a long time, newspapers’ introduction of new technology was a force that affected only production unions. Even today, technology issues loom large for the backshop unions. The Honolulu Advertiser, for instance, wants to eliminate 22 of its 70 pressman positions as it transitions to a new $82 million printing plant next year. “We are seeking a significant change in the economy that we have not seen in 40 years,” says Dennis Francis, the newspaper’s general manager. “The new presses operate a lot more efficiently.”

Advertiser management is in negotiations with all six of its unions, including the Hawaii Printing and Graphic Communications Union, which represents the pressmen. Francis wants to eliminate the pressmen jobs through early retirement, requiring delicate discussions. “They understand the impact of technology,” he says. “They know they have to change with the times.”

But these days, newsroom unions are also wrestling with the issue as convergence technologies tempt companies to use newspaper reporters to write for the Web and appear on cable and broadcast news, too. “We will have a whole new wing to embrace,” says Tony Winton, president of the News Media Guild (which represents all 1,700 U.S.-based members of the Associated Press), referring to convergence. “If you are dealing with a newspaper and a television station and a large organization, that is more difficult, because it will have more resources in the negotiations.” Guild leaders tentatively agreed to a new three-year AP contract last month, which members have been voting on for weeks. Results are expected July 18.

Convergence could both hurt and help unions, but newspapers are already using it at the bargaining table. Linda Geeson, director of marketing and communications for the Sun, says, “The kinds of things that we are asking for that are new, deal with flexibility as a multimedia company. Nobody is just a newspaper anymore.”

Guild President Foley sees revival of cross-ownership — which her union opposed vigorously at the FCC and in Congress — as potentially helping and hurting her union. The Guild is prepared for inevitable attempts by papers to shift traditional unionized work to non-union broadcast workers, she says, but the union is also looking forward to the opportunity to organize those shops.

Labor under delusion?

Craig Rose, who is the former president of The San Diego Union-Tribune‘s now-defunct Guild local, knows better than most the challenges newspaper unions face. The local decertified in 1998 after 61 years, following an aggressive campaign by the paper that convinced workers they would be better off without the union. “It is very difficult in this economy when you have a full-blown, anti-union campaign by these companies with lots of money,” said Rose, adding that the newsroom now has a two-tier wage system, with lower pay for newer reporters.

In contrast, The Plain-Dealer in Cleveland astounded the industry in 1996 when it reached contracts with eight of its unions for an unheard-of 10 year-period. A ninth unit agreed to a pact that went for 14 years.

“Speaking for myself, I still view it as a sort of win-win situation,” says Scott Stephens, a P-D reporter who heads the newspaper’s Guild unit and is a regional vice president for the union. Stephens notes that the paper at the time wanted labor peace because it was constructing a new production plant and preparing to build a new downtown office building.

“Particularly in the 90s, when things were flush, it certainly was unusual to do what we did, to lock into a long-term pact,” he adds, “because the feeling was that two, three or four years down the road, you could do better. Well, things have changed since then.” One downside for the Guild, Stephens says: It’s hard to keep members motivated about union activities.

Teamsters newspaper head Molinero says his union is happy, too, with the long-term P-D arrangement.

For its part, P-D management is tight-lipped about the long contracts, with William Calaiacovo, director of labor relations and human resources, confining himself to this brief statement: “Our contracts expire in 2006. We have achieved our objective of labor stability.”

Newspaper union contracts seem to be getting longer, a development that might once have been seen as an advantage only to management, but that looks increasingly desirable to workers worried about job security. The Guild’s contract with The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, for instance, runs six years, and its agreement with the San Jose Mercury News is nearly eight years long.

For all the difficulties they’ve faced recently, some union leaders take the attitude that this, too, shall pass. “It has happened before,” says the Guild’s Winton. “I don’t think it amounts to a permanent change — the pendulum will swing back.”

Tim Martel, organizer at the Independent Association of Publishers and Employees, a Guild local representing 1,700 Dow Jones & Co. employees, also is optimistic. Although his union is in a difficult battle for a new contract — stalled in part by management demands for a wage freeze and less job protection – he believes better times can return: “We think the problems are cyclical, but it is going to be up to us.”

Some publishers see smoother seas ahead as well. Charles Cochran is publisher and CEO of Blethen Maine Newspapers, which owns three dailies in the Pine Tree State, two of which settled new four-year contracts late last year. Although talks were tough, resulting in annual raises of just 2.5% and the elimination of post-retirement medical benefits for non-vested
employees, Cochran says better economic times ahead will yield easier labor relations.

But there’s a catch. “It will depend,” he says, “on how cooperative the unions are.”

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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