By: Joe Strupp
It could happen, labor fears and management hopes
Labor relations at The San Diego Union-Tribune could hinge on the outcome of a fierce battle being fought between pressroom employees and a newspaper management that has already seen three other bargaining units leave in the past five years.
“They run a great union-busting plan,” Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO, says about the newspaper’s anti-union trend. “They are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys to get rid of their unions.”
But Howard Kastrinsky, a partner with the Nashville law firm of King & Ballow, which has represented the newspaper in labor talks for years, says unions have left the paper only at the workers’ request.
“Employees are the ones who vote on getting rid of unions,” Kastrinsky says.
The most recent labor fight pits the newspaper against Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU) Local 432-M, which represents 120 pressroom employees who have been without a contract since 1992. Over the past seven years, both sides have failed to reach an agreement on a new contract, causing the newspaper to declare an impasse in March.
That’s when new working conditions were unilaterally implemented by the company. Among the new rules was a policy to pay overtime only after a 35-hour workweek.
Other changes include no wage increases for apprentices, no guarantees of journeymen status after four years, and no vacations or benefits for part-time employees.
“They have a philosophy that they simply do not want unions,” says Local 432-M president Jack Finneran.
Union-Tribune CEO Gene Bell directed press calls to human resources director Bobbie Espinosa, who declined to comment on the issue.
GCIU members have held a number of rallies outside the newspaper in recent weeks, along with a regular Sunday leafleting campaign that provides information about the contract stalemate.
Finneran says the local will begin running TV spots in several weeks to advertise its members’ plight.
GCIU also lodged a number of charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is preparing a complaint on about 10 of the allegations that is expected to be issued next week, says Bill Pate, NLRB regional attorney in Los Angeles.
“There are charges of making unilateral changes without bargaining and disciplining employees for union activities,” says Pate.
Pate says once the complaint is released, a hearing before an administrative law judge will be scheduled before the end of 1999.
The GCIU conflict is the latest in a string of union battles at the Copley Press Inc. flagship publication, which boasts a 381,000 daily circulation and dates back to 1868.
Since 1994, members of three other Union-Tribune bargaining units have voted to decertify, leaving only GCIU and Teamsters Local 542, which represents about 50 truck drivers. That means only 170 out of the newspaper’s 1,700 employees are unionized.
The decertification wave began in March 1994 when the 60-member unit of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) that represented composing-room employees voted to terminate CWA’s representation. Three years later, 230 packaging employees, also represented by CWA, voted to decertify.
The biggest hit to labor groups came last year when The Newspaper Guild’s local chapter lost a close 406-378 vote that ended more than 60 years of Guild representation at the newspaper. Although the unit remains in existence, its power to negotiate is gone.
“The Guild employees saw the union as ineffective because the company blocked any meaningful negotiations,” says Craig Rose, a 12-year Union-Tribune reporter and former president of the Guild local.
Union-Tribune officials launched an intense anti-union campaign prior to the Guild vote that included lunches, dinners, and trips to baseball games for union workers, along with a videotaped appeal urging them to decertify.
Matt Potter, editor of the alternative San Diego Reader, says the Guild did not have a strong base. “There was not a lot of grass-roots support,” he says. “They feared too much for their jobs.”
The GCIU lost a portion of its power in November when the newspaper withdrew recognition of the union as a representative for platemakers. Although GCIU officials appealed the move to the NLRB, it was not reversed.
Teamsters officials in April filed a charge with the NLRB that accused the newspaper of pressuring union members to decertify by allegedly promising that; new jobs would be created if the union left, wages would go up, and claiming that a decertification petition was “almost done.”
The NLRB did not uphold the charge. However, the newspaper agreed to a settlement in which it admitted no guilt.
Federal law allows the Guild to begin reorganizing one year after the decertification vote, which was conducted June 12, 1998. Rose would not comment on any plans for starting up the union again, but says the tough stance by GCIU has changed the mood of other employees and given hope for future union power.
“The support for labor unions is more positive than it has been in years,” says Rose.
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