‘S.F. Chronicle’ Could Lose 10% of Guild Jobs Under New Contract

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By: Joe Strupp

More than 10% of the 900 Newspaper Guild jobs at the San Francisco Chronicle could be lost when a new contract is completed, guild officials told E&P as negotiations continue, less than one month before the current agreement expires.

Doug Cuthbertson, executive officer for the Northern California Media Workers Guild Local 39521, said the job losses are likely following a guild review of Chronicle finances, which found the Hearst-owned paper had lost at least $62 million in 2004 and had also previous losses in 2002 and 2003.

“If we look at the size of our workforce, that is a ballpark estimate,” Cuthbertson said about the 10% figure. “At this point, I don?t have a number on it, but that is my personal estimate.”

Of the 900 guild members employed by the paper, 460 are editorial staffers.

While Cuthbertson offered no specific losses for those years, he said the findings did not contradict an assertion by Publisher Frank Vega earlier this year that the paper had lost $62 million in 2004 or that it had other extensive losses in the previous years. “He just verified the losses,” Cuthbertson said about the auditor, Robert Patrician. “I don’t feel free to talk about it, but they had bad years. It didn’t surprise us, we’d been negotiating the contract under an assumption that that was the case.”

The audit, according to the Media Workers’ Web site, also stated that “revenues have been essentially flat since 2002.” In addition, it noted, that the Chronicle’s operating losses “appear to be real and probably unsustainable, even if the impact on Hearst’s corporate results are reduced after taxes and other adjustments.”

Negotiations with the guild have been ongoing since March, when management fired the first shot with an initial proposal that sought cutbacks in sick and vacation time, changes to rules for freelancing and leaves of absence, and an expanded drug-testing policy.

Cuthbertson said no major changes had been made to the paper’s offers, and declined to comment on what the union had requested. “We’re still in negotiations, and that is about all I can say,” he added. “Our hope is to have it worked out by July.” Vega did not return calls seeking comment.

In a notice posted on the guild’s Web site, Cuthbertson said that an auditor for Communications Workers of America, the guild’s parent union, “examined company financial records from 2002 through the first quarter of 2005 at the invitation of the Guild bargaining committee.”

The current contract, which dates to 1994, came after a difficult two-week strike at both the Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner, which included both papers briefly publishing with non-union employees. The contract was extended in 1997 and ends on June 30.

In addition to the Guild, the Chronicle’s mailers and Web pressmen — whose contracts also expire at the end of June — are in similar negotiations. Teamsters Local 1853, which represents drivers, signed a new contract in 2003, which included the loss of 85 jobs out of about 600 at the time.

Guild leaders and management have said in the past that the paper was likely to shed some of its salaries in an effort to stop a bleeding bottom line, but no percentage estimates had been offered until now. Cuthbertson said the union has a provision in the current contract requiring layoffs to be done by seniority, but did not rule out a buyout offer or other non-layoff alternative to be attempted first.

The arrival of Vega, who took over the paper in January after a 14-year stint at the helm of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, has added to union concerns. During his time in the Motor City, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press were involved in one of the bitterest newspaper strikes in recent memory. Many point to Vega’s hard-line approach for helping create that angry fight, which dragged on for five years before ending in 2000.

Some of the Chronicle’s financial difficulties date to 2000, when the paper was bought by Hearst, which had owned the Examiner. Although the company sold the Examiner to a new owner, it allowed all Examiner and Chronicle employees to stay on the job at the Chronicle, creating an editorial workforce of more than 500 people. Although that number has decreased due to layoffs and buyouts, the staffing remains high.

Meanwhile, the Guild local has had its own problems during the past year, with a depleted union health-benefits fund, which forced some emergency benefit-rate hikes last fall and the cancellation of several scheduled raises.

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