‘Providence Journal’ Ruling May Reignite Talks

By: Joe Strupp

Will a judge’s recent ruling that The Providence (R.I.) Journal engaged in 28 different unfair labor practices further strain the paper’s relations with the Providence Newspaper Guild-CWA? Or will the decision — which could cost the paper $3 million — finally galvanize both sides to reach the new contract that has eluded them for 2 1/2 years?

Negotiators for Guild Local 31041 and the Belo-owned Journal both say the decision by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge, who delivered it Sept. 16, will help bring together the two sides, which have failed to reach a new labor agreement since the old one expired in January 2000.

“I would hope the company would see the benefit of reaching an agreement,” said Tim Schick, administrator of Local 31041. “Our hope is that the Journal would reassess its situation and provide something at the bargaining table.”

Boston-based Richard A. Perras, an Edwards & Angell LLP partner who represents the Journal in contract negotiations and during NLRB proceedings, also was optimistic. “We have sought all along to work this out at the bargaining table, and that remains our goal,” he said. “I don’t think [the judge’s ruling] has to strain the contract talks at all.”

But coming to an agreement any time soon still seems far-fetched, given the two sides’ recent history and the bitterness in the newsroom. Feuding began shortly after the last contract ended, when the Journal implemented unilateral changes in pay, health coverage, the vacation policy, the number of floating holidays, parking arrangements, and other areas.

The Journal‘s actions caused the Guild to file 44 charges of alleged unfair labor practices with the NLRB between December 1999 and June 2001.

Judge William G. Kocol held a hearing on the complaints over 10 days in late March and early April, finding in the union’s favor on 28 complaints in his ruling this month. Among the judge’s directives, the paper must pay Guild employees the same raises received by nonunion workers retroactive to Jan. 1, 2000, restore canceled health-coverage options or replace them with an equivalent plan, restore the cap on increases in employees’ share of health-insurance premiums, and restore a floating holiday and the previous vacation policy.

“Wages alone could [cost the paper] in excess of $2.6 million,” said Schick, who estimated the Journal would likely have to fork over more than
$3 million. “This is big.”

Journal management has until Oct. 10 to appeal the ruling to the NLRB, and can appeal later to federal courts if need be. The Journal also faces 22 additional unfair-labor-practice charges, with a hearing set for Oct. 21.

Journal Publisher Howard G. Sutton and Executive Editor Joel P. Rawson did not return calls seeking comment.

Local 31041 represents about 500 Journal employees in editorial, advertising, and several other departments.

The judge’s ruling comes at the end of a rough two-year stretch for the paper. In addition to the Guild battle that has included four byline strikes and numerous union rallies, Journal employees had to deal with a June 10 shooting rampage by a production worker, who later died, that left two other production employees dead.

Journal employees remain hopeful. “I’m optimistic that this will move the company back to bargain with us,” said G. Wayne Miller, a 21-year Journal reporter. “We’re looking for a hopeful sign, and I hope this is it.”

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