By: Mark Fitzgerald
As the strike at the Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, moved into its sixth day Monday, a Newspaper Guild local official said the stalled bargaining might resume Tuesday.
On Sunday, the Vindicator printed on its front page an open letter from Publisher Betty Jagnow and General Manager Mark Brown that said the newspaper has been losing for the last seven years and simply cannot afford what they called the union’s “inflexible” demands.
“For The Vindicator to continue to provide good jobs, expenses simply must be reduced to meet the reality of a substantially smaller revenue base,” they wrote. “All employees of The Vindicator — management and union — have endured a wage freeze for four years. But the impact of the freeze has not been the same for all. For example, the average gross earnings of the striking circulation [district managers] who oversee the carriers have increased by about 10 percent over the last two years and are up over 29 percent since 1998. In fact, last year’s average gross pay for a circulation DM was more than $46,000.”
While two production unions have agreed to concessions or continued negotiations, the letter said, “the Guild set a rigid strike deadline from the beginning.”
The letter also charged that the 179 unionized reporters, copy editors, circulation district managers, and delivery drivers had walked off their job Nov. 16, when the current bargaining agreement expired, without waiting until management made a final offer.
“I guess our adherence to deadlines makes us rigid. Number one, this is a newspaper, so deadlines are a daily routine,” Guild local Vice President Debora Shaulis Flora said with a laugh during a telephone interview. “But really more importantly, for the last 15 years, the Guild has been vigilant about expiration dates.”
Before that, she said, bargaining would sometimes go for a year or more before a new agreement was reached, and the newspaper would not agree to retroactive payments.
Flora said the union is asking for a wage increase of $7.50 a week every three months over the period of a two-year contract. Every job classification would get the same flat increase, she said.
Last Saturday, the Guild local published what it called a weekly strike paper. Some 50,000 copies of Valley Voice, a 40-page tabloid, were distributed. An online version is on the Internet at valleyvoiceonline.com.
In their letter, the publisher and general manager said this proposal would amount to increases ranging from 17% to 34% depending on job classification. It said the Guild demands — ranging from health insurance fully paid by the employer to free parking — would “ruin efforts by The Vindicator to return to profitability.”
Management was offering “up to $800 in signing bonuses (depending on classification) and a yearly 1 percent increase in the next two years” when the union went on strike, the letter said.
Guild official Flora said the the proposal was for a 1% pay increase in the first year of the contract, followed by a signing bonus and no percentage pay increase in the second and final year.
“We have people who make $6.25 an hour, so a six-cent an hour increase does nothing for them, especially after four years of wage freezes,” she said. “More than half of our membership, 93 out of 179 members, is making less than $9 an hour.”
Top minimum for a reporter was $17.83 an hour under the expired contract, she said.
Among the sticking points in non-economic issues, Flora said, is the status of about two dozen circulation assistants. According to Flora, the newspaper created the job so it could train people to do the job of a circulation district manager as the managers retired or left the paper. But the newspaper continues to hire from outside as district managers leave, she said. “We think they should have job-bidding rights … and be seriously considered for the job,” Flora said.
The Vindicator front-page letter also ridiculed the union’s strike paper, which it said was started “in collaboration with a competing newspaper — and a nonunion publication at that. A strike newspaper at a nonunion publication? Apparently, the Guild’s union dedication stops at The Vindicator’s gate.”
Flora said the union had originally arranged for union printers, but the deal mysteriously fell through.