Philly Newsrooms Brace for Strike After Talks Break Off

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By: Joe Strupp

Guild members at Philadelphia’s two daily newspapers are bracing for a strike that some say could come as soon as tonight after contract talks broke off with management on Wednesday over a dispute involving the union’s pension fund.

Rank and file employees who came to work today at the Inquirer and Daily News found a union bulletin in their e-mail boxes reminding them to take personal belongings with them when they leave the office, one of the key preparations for a walkout. It also offered details of the stalemate, which several staffers say paints a bleak picture.

“I think the strike is all but a done deal,” said Damon Williams, a Daily News reporter who has been at the paper since 1998. “It will happen at any moment now. Both sides are so entrenched, it is a sad, sad development.”

Fellow Daily News scribe Dana Difilippo agreed. “Nervous would be a good description,” she said when asked to describe the mood among reporters. “There is more of a thought that it could happen than throughout this whole thing. We did not think there would be a strike, but we came in today to an e-mail that said ‘clean out your desks.'”

A six-year Daily News veteran and the mother of two young children, Defilippo said talk of a strike dominated newsroom discussions today, along with the ongoing threat of layoffs. “People are trying to figure out if they should start looking for a job,” she said.

Similar viewpoints were found at the Inquirer, where columnist Monica Yant Kinney said a strike “has never felt more real than this morning.” She said the negotiation accomplishments of the last week, including resolution of a conflict over seniority rules, have disappeared. “If there was any relief from last week, it is gone,” she said. “It’s bleak.”

Leaders of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents about 900 employees at both papers, negotiated for six hours with management on Wednesday. The key issue at stake was the union’s $137 million pension fund. The newspaper has sought to cap its contributions to the fund and reorganize control so that Philadelphia Media Holdings, which owns both dailies, has more control over the funds.

The negotiating session was the third since last Saturday. On Nov. 30, the union’s last contract extension expired, sparking plans for a possible strike. Guild leaders said just yesterday that a strike was less likely than it had been last week. But today, guild spokesman Stu Bykofsky said circumstances had changed drastically.

“I think the situation is worse than it was a week ago,” Bykofsky said this morning. “There was still talking then, but right now the company has dug in its heels and they refuse to give. Currently they are stuck on stupid and glued to greed.”

Company spokesman Jay Devine was more optimistic that a strike could be averted, noting that a federal mediator was plannig to meet with manegement and union leaders separately today. “I think we are hopeful to get a counter-proposal [on the pension issue] today,” he said. “The mediator will be involved in that.”

Devine added that the newspaper owners would not seek to take from the pension, but had the right to oversee it since they are responsible for the unfunded portion. “No one can take away someone’s pension in this post-Enron time,” he said. “Since we took over the unfunded portion, we woud like to have a say in its ongoing operation.”

Bykofsky said management sent a statement to employees after yesterday’s talks that said, in part, that the company “has now twice modified its initial pension proposal, the guild has refused to make any proposal on the pension.” Bykofsky said the union has opposed the company proposals because “each of their modifications leaves the company in charge” of the pension.

Company officials this week reached agreement with the paper’s nine other unions on new contracts, Devine said. The paper also plans to publish in the event of a strike, but not hire replacement workers.

Union leaders had not revealed any further plans for picketing or even calling a strike today. Bykofsky said there was talk of some kind of protest outside the paper today, but nothing official yet. He said no further bargaining sessions have been set, but a guild meeting is likely today.

Bykofsky had said the holiday season was the most advantageous for a strike, given the company’s reliance on holiday advertising. “If we are going to be forced to strike, the goal is to inflict economic harm on the employer,” Bykofsky said. “Right now, looking at the company’s position, I would say a strike today is possible, a strike tomorrow is more possible.”

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