UPDATE: Philly Contract Talks Resume Saturday

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By: Joe Strupp

The largest union at Philadelphia’s two biggest newspapers resumed contract negotiations late Saturday morning even as strike preparations continued.

Stu Bykofsky, spokesman for The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, said union members are getting their press passes for PhilaPapers.com, the news Web site they plan to launch if there is a strike. It would compete with company-owned Philly.com.

But Bykofsky hopes a strike can be averted.

“A strike is a nuclear bomb,” he said. “As long as progress is being made, you don’t want to go nuclear.”

The Guild represents more than 900 editorial, advertising, circulation and clerical workers at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News.

The Guild had been prepared to strike anytime after midnight Thursday, when its contract expired. But it held off a threatened walkout after the union and management reported progress, and nine other unions still negotiating made clear they wanted to avoid what they said would be a damaging strike.

Philadelphia Media Holdings, an investment group which bought the former longtime Knight Ridder newspapers in June, is seeking contract concessions and job cuts amid sharp declines in advertising revenue and circulation.

The Guild has said it was most concerned about management proposals to freeze pensions and carry out layoffs without regard to seniority.

The last walkout at the newspapers was a 46-day strike in 1985.

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Late Friday we reported:

The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia and negotiators for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News called off contract talks on Friday, with plans to continue bargaining on Saturday, according to a guild statement.

Guild president Henry Holcomb said that management’s choice to end today’s session at 3:40 p.m. was “outrageous.” Still, he said any potential strike remained on hold as the two sides plan to meet over the weekend.

Today’s talks were the latest in the ongoing contract battle, which could end in either a new agreement or a strike.

Earlier Friday the newspapers’ publisher Brian Tierney told E&P that he planned to publish during a strike, while the leadership of the papers’ nine other unions — which agreed Thursday to continue talks until at least Dec. 9 — blasted the guild for refusing to join their extension plan.

“This is ridiculous to have any talk of shutting down the papers,” Joe Lyons, president of the Philadelphia Newspaper Council of Unions, said in a statement. “We don’t want to hurt the newspapers. I think the guild is hurting the guild members.”

Tierney, whose Philadelphia Media Holdings bought the former Knight Ridder papers just last summer, said he had not determined exactly what kind of paper would be published if the guild walked out. But he said having more than 1,000 employees from the nine other unions wiling to work, and cross a picket line, means the newspapers must continue.

“We’ve got a commitment to our readers to do everything we can to keep them informed,” Tierney told E&P Friday. “We haven’t discussed how we would do it. But if the pressmen and all of the workers besides the guild come to work, we will put out a printed paper.”

Tierney said the agreement by the other unions to stay on the job and cross a guild picket line indicates they realize the need for the papers to keep publishing. He also said that most advertisers had agreed to continue buying space in the papers regardless of a strike. “I have heard from advertisers that they will be part of this,” Tierney said. “The advertisers … know our investor group and what our goals are and how civic-oriented we are, and that the guild is being unreasonable and that the nine other unions have agreed to this.”

But Tierney has said he would not hire replacement workers to do the jobs of the guild’s reporters and other staffers. He contends that some 80 to 100 non-union workers and editors at the papers can cover for the potential striking news force. “It reflects what our group is about,” Tierney said, citing his local roots. “I’m not some guy who hopes to get promoted and go to San Jose. I’m not an outsider, I live in this community. I wanted to reassure people that we wouldn’t be hiring replacement workers.”

Guild spokesman Stu Bykofsky, a Daily News staffer, welcomed news that replacement workers would not be used, but said any newspaper put out without guild members would be “masquerading as a paper.” “I could jump into a judge’s robes, it does not make me a judge,” he said. The guild has said it would run its own news Web site during a strike, with breaking news updated regularly at www.philapapers.com.

Bykofsky also lamented the decision by the other nine unions to cross a guild picket line if a strike occurs. “It is unwelcomed news of course,” he said. “I am actually stunned by the fact that a union leadership would announce in advance plans to cross a valid union line. It reflects more concern for management and its position than for union workers and their position.”

Today’s comments by both sides followed the decision late Thursday by the guild negotiators and management representatives to continue negotiations at least through today. “We’ll keep you posted as the day unfolds. We have a lot of work to do. As long as we’re making progress, we’ll keep talking and delay plans to go on strike,” a union bulletin issue today read. “So keep working. Even though we have passed the expiration, the key provisions of our contract remain in force.”

The guild, whose last contract extension ended at midnight Thursday, has said it did not want another lengthy extension. The union, which represents 900 employees at both papers, was prepared to walkout at midnight, but agreed to put off a strike while talks continue.

“We would call a strike if we are put in the position where it is the only thing to get this resolved,” Bykofsky said. “It depends on how things are going.”

Union leaders have said the major sticking points to a new contract are management’s requests to reduce seniority rights, alter sick pay benefits, and cap the union pension fund. The negotiations also are occurring weeks after Tierney revealed plans to cut as many as 150 jobs at the two papers.

Tierney said the guild should look at the reality of the newspaper industry and not be unwilling to move on issues such as seniority. “A blind allegiance to seniority I don’t think is a good thing,” he said. “It is going to kill the diversity of our workforce.”

The publisher also said that the guild’s unwillingness to give in on such issues may impact other newsrooms where private owners are considering purchases. “I think it makes it difficult for other people to step up in other situations if they see the guild will be intransigent,” Tierney said. “If you can’t find a way to make it work here, I don’t know how you expect it to work somewhere else.”

Bykofsky gave no indication of when a strike would occur at this point, or how long the union would be willing to negotiate without a contract being forged. “We can call a strike at anytime now,” he said. “It is a last resort. It probably will not be used as long as there is progress.”

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