By: Joe Strupp
Keeping true to their promise of seeking flexibility among workers in the latest Newspaper Guild contract talks, negotiators at The Sun in Baltimore are asking the union to allow combined reporter-photographer positions; eliminate a cap on annual cost-sharing increases for health benefits; and make union membership optional, The Sun reported.
The proposal came about during the first negotiation session Wednesday with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents about 480 of the paper’s 1,250 employees. Both sides are seeking a contract to replace the current four-year agreement that ends June 24.
Guild leaders, meanwhile, sought unspecified salary increases; limits on medical fees and future job cuts, as well as the elimination of a merit pay system that was instituted with the most recent contract, the paper reported.
Negotiators on both sides have admitted some uneasiness as these mark the first talks since a bitter labor battle, which brought negotiations within hours of a strike before a deal was reached, occurred in 2003.
Negotiations are taking place as The Tribune Co., which owns The Sun, completes a sale of itself to Chicago billionaire Sam Zell. The paper also is offering a buyout aimed at reducing staff by 145 people, including 50 in the newsroom.
Although Guild leaders contend they are going into talks with a positive approach to avoid a job action, they claim that a strike threat is never off the table.
“It is definitely possible,”Cet Parks, chief negotiator for the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild told E&P Wednesday. “Hopefully, the parties can come to a resolution to avoid that. Tribune has been down-sizing, belt-tightening and we are trying to come to an even keel and hopefully we can come to an agreement.”
Sun Spokeswoman Linda Yurche also offered a positive approach, but agreed it will be “an intense process.” She also said the paper would “be looking for increased flexibility at the table.” She declined to state specifics, but the paper has sought workplace changes in the past, winning a provision in the current contract that sets aside a portion of raises for a merit pay fund, distributed only for specific employees deemed worthy based on performance.
The 2003 contract included a first-year wage freeze, with an average $25-per-week salary increase each following year, a change allowing the company to transfer employees to other jobs, and a new partial merit raise system. It also provided a $1,500 bonus and kept layoff protection based on seniority, which the paper had wanted to remove.
Union leaders had opposed the merit system, while also criticizing the paper for bringing in replacement workers to take over in the event of a strike. “Nobody liked the contract, but each member had to make their own calculation about ratifying it,” Bill Salganik, Guild president, said at the time. Salganik told E&P this week that he hoped “to make this a calmer and more collaborative bargaining process.”