By: Joe Strupp
It’s been nearly four years since Newspaper Guild employees at The Sun of Baltimore came within hours of a strike in a bitter labor battle that included replacement workers at the ready and an eventual contract that union leaders found so objectionable they actually urged staffers to reject it.
Today, as both sides prepare for their first negotiations on a new contract since that 2003 battle, union and management representatives admit an uneasiness about the upcoming talks. The economics of the newspaper industry are as bad as ever; The Tribune Company, which owns the Sun, is in flux as billionaire Sam Zell prepares to take over; and the paper has about 150 fewer employees than it did last time.
Although Guild leaders contend they are going into talks, which begin Wednesday morning, with a positive approach to avoid a job action, they claim that a strike threat is never off the table.
“It is definitely possible,” says Cet Parks, chief negotiator for the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. “Hopefully, the parties can come to a resolution to avoid that. Tribune has been down-sizing, belt-tightening and we are trying to come to an even keel and hopefully we can come to an agreement.”
Sun Spokeswoman Linda Yurche also offered a positive approach, but agreed it will be “an intense process.” She also said the paper would “be looking for increased flexibility at the table.” She declined to state specifics, but the paper has sought workplace changes in the past, winning a provision in the current contract that sets aside a portion of raises for a merit pay fund, distributed only for specific employees deemed worthy based on performance.
The 2003 contract included a first-year wage freeze, with an average $25-per-week salary increase each following year, a change allowing the company to transfer employees to other jobs, and a new partial merit raise system. It also provided a $1,500 bonus and kept layoff protection based on seniority, which the paper had wanted to remove.
Union leaders had opposed the merit system, while also criticizing the paper for bringing in replacement workers to take over in the event of a strike. “Nobody liked the contract, but each member had to make their own calculation about ratifying it,” Bill Salganik, Guild president, said at the time. Salganik told E&P this week that he hoped “to make this a calmer and more collaborative bargaining process.”
One aspect of the past negotiations was the practice by the local guild of not working without a contract, which essentially set an automatic strike date on the day the previous contract ended. Michael Hill, the Sun’s Guild unit chair, hinted that the union might be willing to work without a contract to avoid the bitterness of the last talks.
“We don’t think we need the theater of coming up to a [strike] deadline,” Hill said. “I could foresee a scenario where that could happen, we want a different atmosphere. That whole deadline atmosphere just added to the tensions.”
Yurche declined to comment on the possibility of a strike or another near-strike, stating, “it is way too early to think about something like that.” When asked if the paper would again prepare replacement workers if a walkout seemed possible, she said, “The Sun will continue to be published, we haven’t missed a day of publishing for 40 years.”
Neither side would discuss specific proposals, but Hill said the union would seek to have online employees covered under the guild, which currently represents 480 of the Sun’s 1250 employees. “One of the absurdities we face here is that our Web site is divided from the newspaper, we think that is stupid,” said Hill, whose unit is the largest of the paper’s six unions. “We look forward to integration of that.”
In a show of solidarity, Guild members plan to rally Wednesday afternoon outside the paper, Hill said. But he stressed it would be peaceful, with the slogan, “Save our Sun.” “This is not a time to be dividing management and labor,” he said.