A First Shot is Fired in 'S.F. Chronicle' Contract Battle

By: Joe Strupp San Francisco Chronicle negotiators have fired the first shot in what both sides fear will be a bloody battle for a new Newspaper Guild contract, with an initial proposal that seeks cutbacks in sick and vacation time, changes to rules for freelancing and leaves of absence, and a new expanded drug-testing policy.

In a notice to members posted on its Web site last week, the Northern California Media Workers Guild Local 39521 listed elements of the first offer, which were presented at a March 9 meeting between the two sides.

Among the provisions being requested:

? Reducing the amount of annual vacation by an unspecified amount, and instituting a "use it or lose it" policy for all vacation not taken in a year.

? Eliminating anniversary and birthday holidays, reducing the number of annual sick days to five from 10, and ending year-to-year accrual of sick leave.

? Revising (in a yet-unspecified manner) the ability for mothers and fathers on maternity or paternity leave to work a part-time schedule until their child is eligible for kindergarten.

? Revising all pay classifications to "reflect market rates."

? Permitting unrestricted use of commission-only salespeople, and tying pay to performance.

? Eliminating partial payment of liability insurance for employees required to use their own cars on the job. Cutting the mileage reimbursement from the current Consumer Price Index-based rate to the lower IRS rate.

? Adding new sections to the contract allowing expanded drug testing, competency testing, attendance standards, and use of performance appraisals for disciplinary purposes.

? Prohibiting guild members from striking to support another Chronicle union.

The current contract, which dates to 1994, came after a difficult two-week strike at both the Chronicle and Examiner, which included both papers briefly publishing with non-union employees. The contract was extended in 1997 and ends on June 30.

So far, it appears no specific job cuts or other workforce reductions are being requested, according to the notice. But both union leaders and management have said in recent weeks that the paper, which has 900 Guild employees, including 460 in the editorial ranks, is likely to shed some of the salaries in an effort to stanch a bleeding bottom line.

The arrival of Publisher Frank Vega, who took over the paper in January after a 14-year stint at the helm of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, has added to union concerns. During his time in the Motor City, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press were involved in one of the bitterest newspaper strikes in recent memory. Many point to Vega's hard-line approach for helping create that angry fight, which dragged on for five years before ending in 2000.

Vega could not be reached for comment Thursday, but in an interview with E&P two weeks ago, he made clear the paper plans to take a tough stance. "Do we need as many people as we have? Clearly we do not," Vega said then. "We're losing money, and we've go to make money."

Doug Cuthbertson, the Guild's executive officer, sought to ease members' concerns, saying in a statement posted online: "Initial proposals always look far worse than the final agreement. There will be a lot of hard bargaining between now and the conclusion of these talks." Local President Michael Cabanatuan added, "it's also important to remember that any tentative agreement reached at the table must be approved by a majority ratification of members."

Some of the Chronicle's financial difficulties date to 2000, when the paper was bought by Hearst, which had owned the San Francisco Examiner. Although the company sold the Examiner to a new owner, it allowed all Examiner and Chronicle employees to stay on the job at the Chronicle, creating an editorial workforce of more than 500 people. Although that number has decreased by about 100 due to layoffs and buyouts, the staffing remains high.

Meanwhile, the Guild local has had its own problems during the past year with a depleted union health benefits fund, which forced some emergency benefit-rate hikes last fall and the cancellation of several scheduled raises.

CORRECTION, March 17: An earlier version of this story said that the Chronicle has 900 employees. In fact, it has 900 Guild-represented employees. Also, it misstated Frank Vega's previous job. He was president of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, not the Denver Newspaper Agency.


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