‘Blade’ Guild Workers Agree To Pay $40 More Per Week For Benefits

By: Joe Strupp

Newspaper Guild employees of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio agreed to pay about $40 more per week for health and welfare benefits after the board that oversees the benefits asked for the increase to offset a shortfall in the benefit fund.

Larry Vellequette, a member of the Blade’s Health and Welfare Trustee Board, a joint management/union group that oversees policies surrounding benefits, confirmed the increase approval, but declined to offer the specific vote, which was held Monday.

“It was a sizeable majority,” said Vellequette, who is also a spokesman for the Toledo Council of Newspaper Unions. “It was something that had to be done.”

The vote means that each member of the Blade’s guild unit — which is the largest union at the paper with about 350 members — will have to pay another $39.30 per week into the health and welfare fund, which pays the employee portion of the paper’s benefits contribution. With this increase, the guild members will be paying nearly 75% of their total contributions, according to the guild.

“While this company-instigated crisis has been averted, the Guild continues to abhor these company-initiated attacks on our benefits,” the guild said in a statement on its Web site. “The Guild remains committed to reaching a fair contract. Shame on the company for placing its interests above the welfare of the children and families of its employees.”

The guild vote comes about a week and a half after the benefits trustee board, which is comprised of three Blade management members and three union representatives, asked for the increased contribution. Blade spokeswoman LuAnn Sharp, a former trustee and a current Blade assistant managing editor, had said the increase was needed to offset a 10% benefit cost increase dating back to July.

On Sept. 29, the trustee board made its first move to counter the cost increase by suspending dental and vision coverage for all unionized employees until the end of 2006. The paper has more than 500 unionized workers, including the guild unit.

The trustee board oversees all union benefits, including health, dental, vision, prescription drugs, life insurance, death benefits, and retirement benefits. The benefit funds are comprised of contributions from both employees and the newspaper, which are determined during bargaining, not by the trustees board.

Sharp has said the trustees have used reserves to help offset the shortfall, with as much as $40,000 per month being diverted. Vellequette has said that the trustee board reserve has more than $1.4 million that could be used to offset cost increases for several months before increasing contribution levels.

The benefit changes are coming as all but one of the paper’s eight unions continue to work without a contract after their last agreements ended in March. Five of those bargaining units have been locked out for more than a month, a situation that means none of them are making payroll benefit contributions to the fund, but continue to receive benefits.

The guild remains on the job, but without a new contract. Guild negotiators are expected to meet with management for the first time in weeks by the end of next week. “It is a small step and there is a lot more to do,” Sharp said Tuesday about negotiations. “The only way this can end is if we have negotiation sessions with the unions.”

Sharp said none of the locked out union members have caused any major disruptions. But a pro-union blog, www.bladevent.com, which describes itself as a “Toledo Lockout Blog” is getting attention. Apparently launched several weeks ago, the blog is part Gawker, part union bulletin board. Among recent postings are attacks on a Blade house ad campaign to oppose a union-backed ad boycott and reports on other union battles at papers from Pittsburgh to San Jose.

“We’re following the proceedings taking place within The Blade newspaper as contract negotiations continue to struggle along and now multiple unions have been locked out,” the blog states, without indicating who is behind it. “This site was created to give you the chance to voice concerns, beliefs and disbeliefs. It is in the best interest of the company, the unions and the city to deliver contracts that will move everyone forward.”

A search for the domain name owner through Register.com revealed only a California-based hosting company, Dream Host.

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