Rochester Paper’s Union Becomes 2nd to Question Gannett’s ‘Info Center’

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

With management declaring an impasse and the newsroom union overwhelmingly rejecting a “final, firm and best offer” after 14 years of fitful bargaining without reaching a contract, labor relations at the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle right now are prickly at best.

They haven’t been helped by the chain-wide initiative of the paper’s owner, Gannett Co., to restructure daily newsrooms as “Information Centers.”

Newspaper Guild officers say they are especially concerned about the information center because the formal notice of a good-faith bargaining impasse from management declared that “it is our intention to implement such portions of the final, firm and best offer as we deem appropriate on or about Jan. 1, 2007.”

Union officers say they fear the newspaper intends to invoke a vaguely worded “flexibility” clause in their final offer that would, essentially, allow managers to impose onerous work schedules.

The D&C is the second newspaper in the Gannett chain — whose 96 daily newspaper newsrooms are overwhelmingly non-union — in which the information center concept has roiled labor relations.

Last week in a memo to the staff, The Indianapolis Star Vice President Ali Zoibi accused the Guild local there of dragging its feet in accepting the information center concept. “(W)e cannot wait for people to change who don’t want to change,” Zoibi wrote, saying the paper would go ahead with newsroom changes without waiting for the union’s “buy-in.”

In a Dec. 14 speech to a local college audience reported by staff writer Victoria E. Freile, Democrat and Chronicle President and Publisher Michael Kane said in 2007 the D&C will restructure its newsroom to “create an information center to tackle several main tasks: covering hyper-local news; engaging in community conversations; serving as a community watchdog; developing and offering custom publications such as Insider, a weekly publication for young adults; reaching audiences through multimedia and digital technology; and sharing information with other Gannett Co. media outlets.”

Guild Local 17 Secretary Gary Craig said in an interview that the union is not opposed to the change in how news is covered.

“We as employees and, to a degree, as the Guild have embraced a lot of what (information centers) do,” he said. “What we’re concerned about is this ability to yank peoples’ schedules back and forth all the time, this ‘flexibility.’ Our members want to feel they have some life when they leave work.”

A membership survey taken after the management offer was voted down 51-4 earlier this month showed that “the most pressing issues were the complete loss of control of our schedules and the loss of seniority” in determining layoffs,” he added.

The issue of flexibility was also emphasized in the paper’s formal impasse notice from its senior vice president for labor relations, Wendell J. Van Lare. “The parties remain far apart on the essential, substantive issues,” Van Lare wrote in the Dec. 6 notice. “We got a bit closer on certain fringe elements in the hours section, but the company’s need for flexible scheduling has never been embraced by the Guild.” Van Lare is on sick leave, his office said Monday. Another D&C management representative did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The Indianapolis Star’s Guild local treasurer, Judy Wolf, said the union was concerned that the concept might put journalists in ethically suspect positions, especially since Star editors initially suggested that reporters might write advertorials when the information center is implemented.

At the D&C, the Guild local is in contact with its parent Communications Workers of America mulling its next step. The union does not believe talks are at an impasse, Craig said.

“One argument you’ll hear from their side is, look, we bargained for 14 years — how can you say we’re not at an impasse,” Craig said. “But a lot of that wasn’t really bargaining.” And the Jan. 1 deadline for implementing the final offer proposals strikes the union as a “artificial deadline” picked because the new year is close.

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