‘S.F. Chronicle’ Prepares for Round-The-Clock Labor Talks

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By: Joe Strupp

Newspaper Guild leaders and management negotiators for the San Francisco Chronicle are planning to start round-the-clock negotiations beginning Monday, as fears of a possible strike or lock out grow at the Hearst-owned paper. Its current guild agreement is set to expire June 30.

Publisher Frank Vega, who joined the paper earlier this year, acknowledged that management had begun “strike planning” but would not elaborate on specifics. “We are going to be able to publish if they strike us,” Vega told E&P. “We are making plans to publish in the event of a strike. It is prudent to plan.”

While Vega denied rumors that non-union workers had been hired to replace strikers, he said the paper had hired a security company to provide protection at the Chronicle’s main offices and its three nearby printing plants. “They have already done some preliminary work around the plants,” he said of the security guards. “There is a lot of anxiety going on now.”

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

In addition to the Guild, the Chronicle’s mailers, web pressmen, paper handlers, and vendors — whose contracts also expire at the end of June — are in similar negotiations. Teamsters Local 853, which represents 300 drivers, signed a new seven-year contract in 2003 that included the loss of 85 jobs through buyouts, according to Teamsters local presiding officer Rome Aloise.

Aloise, who confirmed that the guild negotiations would go into 24-hour talks Monday, said he had been asked to observe the bargaining by Doug Cuthbertson, executive officer for the Northern California Media Workers Guild Local 39521.

A stike is “certainly a possibility,” Aloise said. “But I don’t think it would be in anyone’s best interest to have one.”

Cuthbertson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The guild local represents about 900 Chronicle employees, including 460 editorial workers.

Negotiations for a new contract began in March, when management sought cutbacks in sick and vacation time, changes to rules for freelancing and leaves of absence, and a new expanded drug-testing policy.

Since then, talks have continued — but a sense of urgency has been created in recent weeks as the contract expiration date looms. “The mood is tense,” Editor Phil Bronstein told E&P. “I think people are acutely aware that contract deadlines are coming up, but are looking to some positive resolution.”

Columnist Andrew Ross, who worked at the Examiner when the 1994 walkout occurred, said most people expect a resolution to occur before a strike, noting that “the underlying mood is that people want to get it done.” There is no indication that talks would not continue beyond the current contract, and no strike vote has been taken.

In April, guild leaders reviewed financial records for the Chronicle and determined that the paper had lost at least $62 million in 2004, with other, larger losses during the two previous years. Cuthbertson told E&P earlier this week that more than 10% of Chronicle guild jobs could be lost once a new contract is completed.

“I don’t have a clue at this point where this will go,” Vega said about the current situation. “I would like to get a conclusion with the union.”

Some of the Chronicle’s financial difficulties date to 2000, when the paper was bought by Hearst, which had owned the San Francisco 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, 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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