UPDATE: Several Unions Approve Philly Contracts, Guild Talks Go On

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By: Joe Strupp

After a week of Guild contract talks that ranged from agreement over an important seniority issue to a pension fund stalemate that raised strike rumors to their most vocal yet, both sides at Philadelphia’s two daily newspapers continue to trade ideas. The latest talks ended in the wee hours of Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a majority of the unions representing workers ratified new labor contracts after weekend votes, one of the papers, the Philadelphia Inquirer, reports: “Delivery drivers, building-service workers, road men and dispatchers represented by Teamsters Local 628 and the mailers of Teamsters Local 1414 all voted to approve new contracts, as did smaller groups of machinists, typographers and electronic technicians represented by other unions.

“The union workers were offered a package that included a $750 cash payment in September 2007, another $750 payment in January 2008, and a $25-a-week raise in the contract’s third year. Some unions also agreed to changes that would allow staffing and payroll reductions.”

The current Guild dispute is over its $187 million pension fund, which Publisher Brian Tierney wants to cap at its current amount, and take over with plans for a new multi-company pension approach that reduces the guild’s control.

Union leaders, who broke off talks last Wednesday over the issue, plan to offer a counter-proposal to management’s approach today, but have declined to reveal details of their offer.

“The negotiators met over the weekend, but they didn’t tell me what they were going to show the company,” Guild spokesman Stu Bykofsky told E&P Monday. “Negotiations are give and take and it has all been take.”

Guild president Henry Holcomb, who was due to be in the negotiations that began at 10 a.m., could not be reached for comment.

Jay Devine, a spokesman for Philadelphia Media Holdings, which owns the Inquirer and Daily News, had little comment on the negotiations, other than to say the ownership would review any guild pension proposal. “We will evaluate it and hopefully continue the negotiations,” he said.

Bykofsky believed that the union would not want to give in to the contribution cap or the proposal for company control of the pension fund. But he said reducing the company’s contribution, currently at about 7%, would be less-objectionable. “I suppose there is more room for negotiation on the contribution idea if the company feels their 7% contribution is too high,” he said. “We can talk about that. But the company wants complete sole control and that is unreasonable.”

Tierney, whose company bought the former Knight Ridder newspapers last summer from McClatchy, indicated surprise at the guild’s opposition to the pension changes in an Inquirer story Monday. The piece, written by staff writer Joseph DiStefano, cites the fact that other local businesses, such as DuPont and Unysis, have made similar changes. “

“‘What we are proposing’ to the … Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia,” the story quoted Tierney saying, ‘is in line with most other companies.'”

The guild responded to the story with a statement today in which Holcomb declared that management should not be surprised at the guild objections. “If they were surprised, it’s because they didn’t calibrate the cost to our members of what they proposed,” the statement said, in part. “We asked them to do that from the beginning, but they weren’t listening.”

Bykofsky also said comparisons to other companies should not mean anything to the union. “To say that other companies are doing it doesn’t make it right,” he said.

The guild, which represents more than 900 employees at both papers, is the last of the papers’ 10 unions without a contract agreement. The remaining nine bargaining units have reached tentative agreements in the past week, with six of them voting to approve contracts this weekend. The guild, whose last contract extension ended on Nov. 30, remains without a contract and voted in October to strike if necessary.

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