By: Mark Fitzgerald
JUST SIX MONTHS after buying the tabloid, the new owners of the Chicago Sun-Times face their first labor battle with a fired-up Newspaper Guild.
After bogging down for weeks over procedural issues of how to conduct the talks, negotiations recently began in earnest ? and both sides seem determined to bring matters to a conclusion quickly one way or the other.
As its three-year contract expired Sept. 30, member of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, which represents 265 editorial employees, voted overwhelmingly to authorize union officers to call a strike if necessary.
For its part, the paper, too, expects things to come to a head soon.
“In the next week or two, we’ll know whether we’ll be able to wrap things up quickly or if we have to slog our way through,” said James Artz, senior vice president/human resources.
If there is a strike, Artz said, the Sun-Times ? and its 41 Pioneer Press suburban papers, where Guild members have also authorized a strike ? will continue to publish.
“The plans are made ? here and at Pioneer,” Artz said. “If they pulled the plug today, we’d [publish] tomorrow.”
To somewhat blunt the threat of replacement workers, the Sun-Times Guild unit has joined the Guild editorial workers at the Pioneer Press papers in what it calls “cooperative negotiations.”
The Chicago Guild’s aggressive stance is an unusual one at a time when editorial unions at other papers ? fearful that management would love to chase the union out the door ? much prefer corporate campaigns, informational picketing and in-paper strategies to open confrontation.
It might seem an even more unusual strategy given that the Sun-Times has new owners with a reputation for rigorous cost-cutting ? and no special warmth for labor unions.
American Publishing Co., a unit of Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc., bought the tabloid and its two community newspaper groups this March for $180 million. The new owners have offered buyouts for some senior employees, have dropped out of the Newspaper Association of America to save on dues and want to modernize the paper’s aging letterpress printing presses.
“These are very cash-flow oriented executives,” Artz said. “They are very interested in putting dollars into equipment, production and promotion. But they are not going to put in dollars and effort from their other properties into Chicago ? we’re going to have to generate the cash flow.”
Sun-Times management is proposing a three-year contract that would increase wages about 1%, but cut the current 10% night differential payment.
In addition, the company is proposing a series of changes in newsroom management ? in discipline, grievances, story assignments and conflict of interest issues ? it says it needs to operate more efficiently.
“This company has said from the beginning that this is a new age, a new day, a new beginning,” Artz said. “Things will be different.”
But Sun-Times Guild spokesman Dan Lehmann says it is just the same old song to a union that has worked under four owners in the last 10 years.
“We’ve heard that from everybody, from the Fields [Sun-Times founding family], [Rupert] Murdoch, [investor group] Adler & Shaykin and now these guys,” Lehmann said.
“We have what is, in the industry, a ‘good’ contract,” he added. “But it didn’t come out of thin air. The company has a contract with the Newspaper Guild that has evolved over 50 years . . . and we intend to see that it is continued.”
Lehmann said the company’s night differential proposal would mean a 9% pay cut for the many newsroom staffers whose shifts extend into the evening hours.
The Guild’s own opening wage proposal is an aggressive one: 10.5% increase in a one-year contract.
Lehmann says the increase is necessary because newsroom salaries have fallen behind as a result of inflation and the Guild’s acceptance of one-year wage freezes in the past two three-year contracts.
Not surprisingly, management says the proposal is a non-starter.
“Obviously, that’s not even in the parking lot, let alone the ball park,” Artz said. “Nobody’s giving that type of money any more.”
But for the Guild, the management control is becoming an emotional issue. Reporter complaints about editors are increasing ? and making members more militant, the union says.
And Lehmann characterizes the management rights proposals as yet another step towards what the Guild says is intrusive control by executive vice president and editor Dennis Britton.
“The biggest difference that Dennis Britton has introduced through his actions and those of his editors is we have been increasingly micromanaged. Now this can be good or bad, but it’s a real culture change at the Sun-Times,” Lehmann said.
He said that the proposed management would put many practices at the discretion of specific editors.
Human resources chief Artz, however, says the changes are “not micromanaging or Dennis Britton controlling [the newsroom] . . . . It’s that on these issues we would like one voice telling what is permissible.”
As it stands now, Artz said, reporters can refuse assignments on their off days or if the work would take them out-of-town.
“When you go into this business, you know there are certain things you have to do ? work nights, work weekends ? certain things that will inconvenience your personal life,” Artz said.
The paper also wants the ability to suspend employees. Right now, Artz said, there is no provision for discipline between a warning or outright dismissal.
Similarly, the paper wants an end to night differential practices and pay that Artz said can start as early as 11 a.m.
For its part, the Guild calls the company proposals a disguised pay cut amounting to $900,000 over three years.
“When Murdoch or Adler & Shaykin were here they were straight up in our face: ‘We want a 15% pay cut. We want a wage freeze,’ ” union spokesman Lehmann said. “These guys are not as straightforward, quite frankly, not as honest in what their proposal means.”
While both sides are talking tough, there were reports of quick progress in negotiations this week.
And while the company repeatedly emphasizes that things must change, Artz also said the paper has no interest in busting the union.
“If this company wanted to take the union out, we’d be proposing gutting the contract. And we’re just not doing that,” Artz said.