WHILE LAST WEEK'S announcement that the Star Tribune is up for sale renewed concerns about the shrinking number of independent newspapers, employees of Cowles Media Co. contend that a merger would put more than editorial autonomy at risk. Staffers cite the recent acquisition of the Monterey County Herald by Knight-Ridder as a prime example of how a buyout can be used to bust a union.
"In Monterey," says union rep Mike Sweeney, "Knight-Ridder fired everybody and said they had to reapply" for their jobs. When the restructuring was complete, he says, the union was out, as were 15 percent of employees, and benefits got slashed. However, the Knight-Ridder deal was an "asset sale," and Cowles executives have said they can't use the same sales mechanism "for tax reasons"--presumably because owners would get walloped by the IRS.
Regardless of how a sale may be structured, says Strib reporter Joe Rigert, the Newspaper Guild's foothold in the newsroom is safe for now. "There's language in the contract that says that existing contract rights have to be honored by new owners," he says. He concedes that this could change by next August when reporters' contracts are up for renewal. And as for the fate of drivers and carriers, Strib Teamster official Bob McKee was unavailable for comment, but a representative in his office says Teamsters hope the company will honor its commitments. "We're trying not to panic," he adds.