Back To The Past p. 8

By: Stacy Jones LOST HOMES, unpaid bills and a negotiating stand-still were all striking employees of the daily Ellwood City (Pa.) Ledger and weekly Valley Tribune had to show for their efforts when they returned to work Jan. 20 after their reinstatement under a federal court order.
U.S. District Court Judge Donald Ziegler in Pittsburgh ordered the paper's owners, Citizens Publishing & Printing, to reinstate any striker who wanted to return. An appeal by the company was denied.
"Fighting off bill collectors was becoming more of a battle," explained Doug Campbell, president of Teamsters Local 261 which represents the employees. "We thought it to be wise to return to work and fight our battle on the job."
"It was a chance to stop the bleeding," he added.
While on strike, employees received $55 per week plus occasional hardship wages for crisis situations, such as their electricity being shut off for lack of payment.
Only 14 of the original 26 strikers returned to work at the 6,600+ circulation papers. The remaining 12 chose not to return for a variety of reasons, said Campbell.
For Scott Kegel, general manager and co-owner of Citizens, the strike's demise means a return to normalcy and the recovery of advertising and subscriptions lost during the strike. While on strike, union members started a competing weekly, the Ellwood City Press, which Kegel admits took money away from Citizens' papers.
Although the workers have returned, no contract talks are on the horizon.
"That's all in the future," said Kegel. "Now we just want to maintain smooth operations."
With negotiations stalled, employee wages and benefits will remain dormant as well. Current pay scales for the company's 40 some workers range from $3.65-$12, according to Kegel.
In addition to "across the board" wage increases, the union wants to create salary parity within the same positions, said Campbell. For instance, some printers make minimum wage while others with the same experience level make $11 per hour.
Despite the unhappiness over wages, it was a sub-contracting incident that pushed employees to the brink. Strike talk was ignited after a night-time, weekend photographer in the union was laid off and his work load given to stringers. Shortly thereafter, the union got word that the NLRB ruled that the union's charge against Citizens of unfair labor practices had merit.
With that information, Local 261 walked off the job.
Eight months later, in March 1996, the resolution to leave the picket line for employment was made when union officials presented an unconditional offer to the company [which was denied] to go back to their jobs, said Campbell.
The court order came about after the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint in August 1996 against Citizens, saying the company fired the workers for joining a union. Employees voted to join the Teamsters in 1993.
In October, an administrative judge held a hearing on the NLRB complaint and was expected to rule by February. Fearing the union would fold due to financial liabilities before the judge's ruling, the NLRB asked for the court order.
According to Campbell, the strike was close to putting the union "out of business."
If the union had waited until the administrative judges had a hearing on the company's labor practices, even if the ruling was in the union's favor, it would have been a mute point, said Campbell.
"It would just have been a moral victory, a paper victory," he said.
From the union's March offer to return to work, through October, the local estimates its financial obligations were running between $8,000 and $10,000 per week.
While the union and Citizens employees hope negotiations will resume in the prolonged effort to gain the local's first contract, optimism is not running high.
In addition to the gloomy bargaining outlook, the employee reinstatement finds the former strikers facing new workplace conflicts.
"Right now, we've identified a lot of issues [the company] has not complied with since the reinstatement," explained Campbell.
Included in the court order was the stipulation that strikers be placed into the same position they held before the strike, or, at least, one with a comparable wage. To achieve this, replacement workers hired during the strike were to be let go.
The reality is quite different, claimed Campbell.
Key concerns involve reinstated workers receiving lower pay than when they left, some replacement workers being paid up to 40% more for the same position than the returning workers, and new job duties for strikers returning to their old positions, said Campbell.
Of the 21 replacement workers hired by the company, 10 remain employed at Citizens and 11 were laid off, said Kegel.
The union has sent a letter to the company's owners outlining the discrepancies and has no plans for any radical actions.
"We'll give the employer some time to respond," said Campbell. "Our goal is to get a contract. But [the company] will grind this thing out for seven or eight years."
Despite the legal problems hanging over the company's head, compromise doesn't seem to be a consideration for them, said Campbell.
"They keep believing they're immune."
?(While on strike, union members started a competing weekly, the Ellwood City Press, which Scott Kegel, general manager and co-owner of the Ellwood City Ledger and Valley Tribune, admits took money away from his newspapers. It wasn't enough, however, to force Kegel to negotiate with the workers.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Striking workers at the Ellwood City, Pa., newspapers returned to work Jan. 20 with nothing to show for their 18-month strike. Meanwhile, union workers are still on strike, after 20 month, at Detroit's two newspapers) [Photo]


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