UPDATE: Philly Strike Off (For Now), But Guild Hits Tierney’s ‘Blather’

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By: E&P Staff and The Associated Press

A federal mediator involved in contract talks at Philadelphia’s two largest newspapers wants to bring negotiators back to the bargaining table on Monday, after discussions stalled over a proposal to freeze pensions.

A spokesman for The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia said strike preparations, which were revived after talks broke off Wednesday night, will be put on hold until Monday. The union represents more than 900 editorial, circulation, advertising and clerical workers at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News.

Meanwhile, the Guild said PhilaPapers.com, a Web site set up to compete with company-owned Philly.com, is prepared to have a few stories posted within four hours after a strike starts and will be fully operational with multiple news sections within a day.

“Right now, the pension is the road block,” said Guild spokesman Stu Bykofsky. “As long as they (management) are stuck at stupid, we can’t move forward.”

Brian Tierney, chief executive of the papers’ owner, Philadelphia Media Holdings LLC, sent a memo to employees on Thursday to quell fears about losing pension benefits.

He said the company wants to stop making future payments into the pension – it will be closed to new hires – but not take away current pension benefits for workers and retirees already in the plan. Tierney also said management is “offended” at hints that its proposal to take over the pension would lead to raids on employee money. Instead, he said, it’s a matter of affordability.

“We simply can no longer afford the generous pay and benefits of a bygone era, when newspapers dominated the media,” Tierney told employees.

Jay Devine, spokesman for the papers’ owner, said management wants to have control over the pension because it’s legally responsible for fully funding it. The company also wants to boost the pension’s return, which has been averaging 4 percent.

Devine said the company is looking to cut costs by $20 million to $30 million a year. The contract agreements reached with the papers’ nine other unions, representing 1,100 workers, didn’t yield substantial savings, he said. Management is looking at the Guild for the rest of the savings.

Bykofsky said the Guild has already budged on several issues, adding that it’s tough on employees to have to yield ground on the pension and still face job cuts.

“We’re still going to have layoffs no matter what,” he said. “How many more people do you think you can squeeze out of here?”

While management has not formally disclosed the number of layoffs to the Guild, editorial department heads were told as many as 150 jobs – a third of the Inquirer’s news staff – could be cut.

Devine said management has budged on issues, agreeing to keep seniority status among workers in the event of job cuts, after factoring in some aspects of job performance. Management agreed that suburban writers could fall under the Guild’s contract and pared back a proposal to cut sick benefits from the first five days without pay to three, then paying 65 percent of wages for up to 40 weeks.

On Monday, both sides reached a tentative agreement on the sticky seniority issue after holding marathon discussions over the weekend.

The last strike at the newspapers, in 1985, lasted 46 days.

The Guild released the following statement late Thursday, which included the Tierney memo — or “blather,” as the Guild spokesman put it:

“Below you will find a 12/7/06 open letter from Brian Tierney to employees of Philadelphia Newspapers, which we are sharing as a public service. Skipping over the self-serving blather, Brian Tierney writes (on Page 2) that ‘we are all in this together’ – except when it comes to directing the investments of our pension fund. That?s when it becomes ‘me,’ not ‘we.’

“We have a problem with that for one simple reason: It?s OUR money, put there for US by Knight-Ridder. It is not Brian’s money to invest. The fund is both safe and healthy.

On Friday, Bykofsky, the Guild spokesman, sent the following to the media.

The Newspaper Guild negotiating committee is meeting today (Friday) and over the weekend to formulate, at the federal mediator’s request, a response to the company on the issue of the pension.

Please note there are two issues involved here. It is not merely the company’s desire to freeze the pension, as most of you report. It is also the issue of the company’s desire to take over sole administration and direction of the pension, which currently is jointly administered by three union representatives, three company representatives and one impartial chair. It is a carefully constructed and balanced system that has worked very well for everyone.

Your reporting, whenever possible, should mention both issues.

In his open letter yesterday, Brian Tierney said a change in the pension would “perhaps” cost “everyone a little more.” There is no “perhaps.” The freeze (meaning no more company contributions) would definitely cost members a great deal more.

In explaining why he felt the company should solely direct the fund, he wrote, “The Guild has no incentive to maximize returns since we must fund any shortfalls.”

That is nonsense. The Guild’s “incentive” is that our members benefit from a strong, healthy, wisely- and safely-invested fund.

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