By: George Garneau
Providence Journal-Bulletin and union in a tense
standoff over management demand to share health costs sp.
IN BREEZY RHODE Island, tension is building in yearlong contract dispute marked by internal sniping and public displays of antagonism between the Providence Journal-Bulletin and the Providence Newspaper Guild.
The Guild contract, covering 425 Providence Journal Co. employees in news, advertising, accounting and housekeeping, formally expired June 16 when management halted month-to-month extensions that began when the last contract ran out Jan. 1.
Since June, the union, the largest of three at the paper, has been raising the pressure: mounting work-to-rule job actions, filing complaints with state labor regulators, withholding bylines, rallying in front of the newspaper, mailing letters to business leaders and organizing reader boycotts. It even hired a plane to fly over the Fourth of July parade towing a giant message urging the company to settle.
After management proffered its “last and final offer” May 27, the union expected it would be followed by the declaration of an impasse and the posting of conditions.
The union made no formal response except to request details over the summer. Meanwhile, management posted notices declaring an impasse, but failed to notify the union directly, said Frank Santafede, an editor who is president of the Guild local.
Finally, on Sept. 9, union members resoundingly rejected the offer in a 306-to-26 vote whose 85% turnout broke records.
Talks were continuing informally and under wraps of a confidentiality agreement, Santafede said.
Negotiations are bogged down over company demands to institute flexible benefits, including shifting some of the cost of health insurance to workers. The demands are too open ended for the union, which refuses to go along unless it knows how much members will pay for health and what they will get.
The union says it can’t negotiate pay unless it knows the cost of health insurance.
Meanwhile, the union opposes management demands to remove 13 accounting jobs from union jurisdiction, to institute a two-tier wage scale for reporters, and to exclude from jurisdiction any jobs in “new ventures” the company starts, including six or seven editors to be hired for a planned electronic service with Prodigy.
Company executives declined to comment.
Union leaders said they were surprised by the protracted standoff. The Guild usually reaches agreement on a new contract in January. Its last strike against the company was 21 years ago.
Talks started amicably. The company, seeking a “new era” in labor relations, asked the union to agree to mutual gains bargaining, or interest bargaining, a non-confrontational form of negotiation based on setting goals. The company even sent union negotiators to learn about the process from Cornell University professors.
Bargaining went well for months. Minor issues, including streamlining the grievance process, were settled amicably, Santafede said.
Then management presented “a number of very troubling proposals,” Santafede said. Chief among them was the proposal that the Guild accept a flexible health plan, the same as instituted two years ago among management and union-exempt employees.
Guild members now pay nothing for health insurance.
While the company said the plan pays for 93% to 94% of coverage, the union says the proposal saddles employees with unknown costs for undefined coverage.
“We are asking that any increase in premiums be predictable,” Santafede said.
He said the union accepts in principle the responsibility to shoulder some health costs, but not under management’s current terms.
While the union doesn’t want to bargain for pay until it knows how much health coverage will cost, Santafede said the company has proposed a three year contract calling for annual raises of 3%, 2% and 2%, and the union has proposed three 5% pay hikes.
The expired contract set top minimum pay for reporters at $835 a week.
The union has tried to make its point internally and in public.
In shop, it challenged management in June with a work-to-rule action on the night copy desk, where Guild members started taking 30-minute dinner breaks, after years of eating at their desks. The union said supervisors ordered workers back to their desks under threat of disciplinary action.
The union complained to the state labor department, which held that workers are entitled under state law to their unpaid break, whether or not they took it before. Management has abided by the ruling and is scheduling when Guild covered workers may take breaks.
In another action, union members who were not scheduled to work on election night recently sneaked into the newsroom and replaced editors who slipped out for breaks. On a signal, the unscheduled workers, wearing red Guild T-shirts, walked out en masse, leaving the newsroom nearly empty as deadline neared and supervisors were powerless, according to Martha Smith, columnist and Guild shop steward.
Adding to the chaos, reporters delayed filing stories until deadline, she said, and withheld their bylines from the paper’s election coverage the next day.
Smith, who has accused the paper of sexual harassment in a complaint filed with the state’s human rights commission, said the union has come to a “crossroads” in the escalating contract dispute.
“The message we sent to our negotiating committee is that we are in it for the long haul. We are not going anywhere,” she said. “If it takes two years to negotiate to a satisfactory conclusion, then that’s what it takes.”
The union has not taken a strike vote nor was it talking about one. Santafede characterized a strike as a “weapon of last resort” that would damage both sides.
He said members are determined because the contract involves more than just pay and benefits.
“It’s about how work will be done in the future,” Santafede said. “Members are determined that they will not accept a contract that does not provide predictability for their medical costs, a contract that takes money out of their pockets and cuts their ability to provide for their families.”
?( Providence Newspaper Guild members and their supporters marched in the spring in protest of management’s stance in contract negotiation) [Photo Caption]