Close MediaNews Guild Vote Sparks Uncertainty for Future Talks

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By: Joe Strupp

Will the close union vote at a chain of MediaNews Group papers outside San Francisco mean tough bargaining times ahead for the nine-paper group and its new guild local?

Initial reaction from both management and a group of anti-union staffers may mean some difficult negotiations as the newly-approved Newspaper Guild unit gets to work. Not to mention the close vote Friday, in which newsroom employees voted 104 to 92 for representation by the Northern California Media Workers.

“This vote represents a powerful investment in the future of journalism in the Bay Area, one that’s going to move us all forward, both staff and managers,” said Sara Steffens, reporter at the Contra Costa Times of Walnut Creek and a co-chair of the union organizing campaign. “It will be good for our news coverage and good for our communities.”

But the vote, which means that the Bay Area News Group – East Bay will have newsroom staffers represented by the guild, reflects at least some opposition to a union shop. With 225 eligible voters at the nine papers, which include the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times, fewer than half, 104, voted for the guild, with 92 opposed.

“Most telling: the guild boasted that two-thirds of eligible employees had signed cards; yet, in the final tally … not even a majority of eligible employees [favored the guild],” a statement by a group of newsroom employees named, Why Union-Free, stated on their Web site.

“For all of our sakes, I hope this union can accomplish what no MediaNews newspaper guild has before ? a quick first contract devoid of massive givebacks. Unfortunately, from this point forward, our managers will be unable legally to discuss the ramifications of any aspect being negotiated. Once again, we will be at the mercy of a guild group that showed throughout its campaign that full disclosure wasn?t always a priority. For those who worked under a guild in ANG, once again you find yourselves at the mercy of a guild that allowed substantial givebacks, including the loss of vacation time and life insurance, and initially overlooked including other benefits, such as the 401(k) retirement plan.”

The anti-union group, headed by Contra Costa Times staffers George Avalos and Ann Tatko-Peterson, has been opposing the guild effort, claiming it will not help most workers. It’s Web site is www.whyunionfree.com.

“So, our effort shifts gears starting today. We will serve in a watchdog capacity from this day forward,” Peterson wrote in a Web site statement following the vote. “We will scrutinize every contract brought before us, report on every potential gain or loss and be sure that every employee who wants to know the ‘whole story’ actually gets it. We are in no position to stop a bad deal or drawn out negotiating process ? that will belong to the majority who vote ? but we at least can put all of the information in the hands of our colleagues.”

John Armstrong, president and publisher of Bay Area News Group – East Bay, also offered little support for the union after the vote was held, stating in a memo to staffers: “Kevin Keane [BANG-EB executive editor] and I are disappointed, of course, because we feel a union-free environment is best for our employees. We will meet next week with our labor specialists to determine how to proceed.

“This has been an emotional experience for everyone involved. My hope ? and Kevin?s ? is that we now can heal the wounds and move forward as one team to build the quality of our newspapers, web sites and other products,” he added. “Moving forward as one unified team rarely is part of collective bargaining, but Kevin and I pledge to do all we can to keep us moving in a positive direction.”

Still, guild leaders cited the vote as a positive move for the local union and the national organization.

“Many in the industry have been closely watching developments at the BANG-EB properties since August, when corporate parent MediaNews made headlines by withdrawing recognition from the 20 year-old Guild unit at ANG Newspapers, which included the Oakland Tribune and four other East Bay dailies,” Bernie Lunzer, the newly elected Newspaper Guild president said in a statement.

MediaNews in August withdrew recognition of the former Alameda Newspaper Guild, which represented some 130 staffers at the four-paper ANG, including the Oakland Tribune.

The union recognition change followed MediaNews’ consolidation of ANG’s editorial functions with its neighboring five-paper Contra Costa Newspapers, led by the Contra Costa Times of Walnut Creek.

The consolidation of editorial operations from the two groups came one year after MediaNews purchased the Contra Costa papers from McClatchy as part of its takeover of 31 daily and community papers in the area, which also included the Mercury News.

Company officials said at the time that the move was proper because the consolidated editorial unit now includes fewer than 50% guild members. Since the ANG unit, which had been under a guild contract since 1998, had only 130 staffers and the Contra Costa staff, which was union-free, included about 170, the guild unit could be removed because it did not represent a majority of the combined workers.

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