UPDATE: Philly Strike Averted — for Now

By: E&P Staff and the Associated Press

A possible Guild strike at two Philadelphia papers starting at midnight Thursday was averted because of reported progress in contract talks. It could still take place, however, later.

The largest union at Philadelphia?s two biggest newspapers said late Thursday that it would continue negotiations Friday, past a midnight strike deadline, with both sides reporting good progress in negotiations.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Guild President Henry Holcomb said.

“We are all working hard and I believe that a great deal of progress is being made,” Brian Tierney, chief executive of the papers? owner, Philadelphia Media Holdings, said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, Guild members picked up their picketing assignments even as other unions expressed eagerness to avoid what they said would be a costly strike.

“We think a strike is really going to hurt us,” said Joe Lyons, president of the Philadelphia Council of Newspaper Unions, which represents all unions but the Guild. “We?re going to go to work.”

The newspapers were long part of Knight Ridder Inc., which was sold in March to McClatchy Co. McClatchy sold the Philadelphia papers three months later to Philadelphia Media Holdings, an investment group led by Tierney, a former public relations executive who is now the papers? chief executive, in a deal worth $562 million.

Circulation has been on a sharp decline, with weekday figures at the Inquirer down 7.6 percent to nearly 331,000 in the six months ended Sept. 30.

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

Guild leaders said employees who cross picket lines cannot look forward to friendly relations with striking co-workers. They?ll also be breaking a long Philadelphia tradition.

“So much of what produces a newspaper has become automated,” said newspaper analyst John Morton. “The thing that would interfere with that is distributorship.”

During a strike, Guild members said they would contribute to an online news site, http://www.PhilaPapers.com, that would compete with the company-owned Web site, http://www.Philly.com.

Analysts said a strike would hurt both the company, which would suffer declines in advertising revenue and circulation, and employees, who risk losing their jobs or having to accept lower wages.

Employees have not fared well in recent strikes at other major newspapers.

Arguably the most bitter newspaper strike occurred at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News and lasted 19 months. When it ended in 1997, circulation and wages fell. The strike cost the papers $300 million, mostly due to hiring of replacement workers and lost ad revenue.

“The unions struck and basically overnight the owners were able to achieve staff reductions that would have taken them years to negotiate,” Morton said.

Morton said he is not so sure that Philadelphia Media Holdings was as well-prepared as the owners of the Detroit papers.

“Management is not as well-equipped to pull it off,” he said. “These guys haven?t run newspapers before, so who knows how that might turn out?”
***

Our earlier report:

The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents over 900 editorial and other workers, was threatening to strike if it cannot reach an agreement with management before its current contract expires at midnight Thursday.

Henry Holcomb, president of the Guild, said earlier Thursday its members are not interested in another lengthy extension because “it causes management to relax, then we’ll have a fire drill again.” The contract had already been extended one month.

The company and the Guild have clashed over management’s proposal to freeze and take over the pension, cut sick pay benefits and disregard seniority when it comes to layoffs.

Holcomb said he hadn’t heard directly from the council about its willingness to cross picket lines. If they do, they would be breaking a long Philadelphia tradition, he said.

If the Guild does go on strike, the support of the other unions would be critical, notably that of drivers who could disrupt newspaper distribution even if management publishes papers.

“So much of what produces a newspaper has become automated,” said newspaper analyst John Morton. “The thing that would interfere with that is distributorship.”

The newspapers were long part of Knight Ridder Inc., which was sold in March to McClatchy Co. McClatchy sold the Philadelphia papers three months later to Philadelphia Media Holdings, an investment group led by Brian Tierney, a former public relations executive who is now the papers’ chief executive, in a deal worth $562 million.

Weekday circulation at the Inquirer fell 7.6 percent to nearly 331,000 in the six months ended Sept. 30, compared with a national decline in daily circulation of 2.8 percent. And last month Tierney announced that declining ad revenues would require contract concessions and that layoffs were unavoidable. The top editor has also since been replaced.

Analysts said a strike would hurt both the company, which would suffer declines in advertising revenue and circulation, and employees, who risk losing their jobs or having to accept lower wages.

“They are debilitating for everybody,” said Steve Cabot, chairman of The Cabot Institute for Labor Relations, a suburban Philadelphia consulting firm that advises management.

Employees have not fared well in recent strikes at other major newspapers.

Arguably the most bitter newspaper strike occurred at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News and lasted 19 months. When it ended in 1997, circulation and wages fell. The strike cost the papers $300 million, mostly due to hiring of replacement workers and lost ad revenue.

But in the end, management got the upper hand, Morton said.

“The unions struck and basically overnight the owners were able to achieve staff reductions that would have taken them years to negotiate,” he said.

The Detroit publishers planned well for a strike. Morton said he is not so sure about Philadelphia Media Holdings.

“Management is not as well-equipped to pull it off,” he said. “These guys haven’t run newspapers before, so who knows how that might turn out?”

In the event of a strike, Guild members plan to contribute to an online news site, www.PhilaPapers.com, that would compete with the company-owned Web site, www.Philly.com.

If the Guild goes on strike, it would be their first since a 46-day walkout in 1985.

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