‘Blade’ Expects to Lose $5 Million in 2006 — Lockout Could Go On ‘Forever’

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By: Joe Strupp

General Manager Joe Zerbey of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, says 2006 is likely to end with his newspaper losing some $5 million for the year, claiming the paper must have wage and benefit concessions from union workers in order to make money down the line.

“We hope that we can get a contract with our unions that enables us to make a profit,” Zerbey said Friday about the paper’s eight bargaining units, seven of which have been without a contract since March. “We have to be able to have a margin that allows us to weather economic downturns and apply capital dollars to keep us abreast of new technology and equipment.”

Zerbey’s comments come as a lockout of about 200 workers from five of the paper’s unions enters its fifth month. He said the first glimmer of hope for an end to the stalemate may occur Jan. 11 when management and union leaders plan to meet for the first time since the lockout began Aug. 26.

“We could do it forever if we had to,” Zerbey says of the lockout. “We don’t want to do that, we need to fix the Blade.”

Union leaders from the Newspaper Guild and the Toledo Council of Newspaper Unions could not immediately be reached for comment Friday morning.

Block Communications, which owns the Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, received some more bad news this week, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which reported Friday that two ratings firms — Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s — had downgraded the company’s credit ratings.

Word of the Jan. 11 union meeting follows a recent National Labor Relations Board finding that the lockout is illegal, according to NLRB Regional Director Allen Binstock. He told E&P that the lockout had been determined to be a violation of the National Labor Relations Act and a hearing on the matter would be held before an administrative law judge.

Zerbey said Friday that the paper had not received formal notification of the NLRB findings, but said such an accusation was unexpected. “I am surprised because I don’t believe we did anything wrong,” Zerbey said. “The lawyers and I have talked and we are astonished.”

The lockout occurred after the five unions involved failed to reach agreement on new contracts earlier this year. Zerbey has said about 80 to 90 replacement workers have been hired. The Newspaper Guild, the largest of the paper’s eight unions, has also been without a contract, but remains on the job. One of the paper’s unions, which represents electricians, has reached a new agreement.

During the lockout, the unions have waged both a subscription and advertiser boycott, claiming the effort has economically impacted the paper. Zerbey has contended that little impact has been felt and that many of the advertisers who initially pulled out have come back.

Blade management has said it needs a variety of concessions from workers, including workplace rule changes and salary cuts in order to stem growing losses it claims are mounting. The paper already convinced guild workers to pay more for health benefits in October.

“This company is losing money and at the end of the day, we have nothing to give back,” Zerbey said.

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