Chain Reaction

Star Tribune union members fret as their parent company plays hardball in contract talks out West

In November 1997, when the Star Tribune's 1600 union employees learned that the Cowles Media Company had just sold their paper to the McClatchy Co. for an unprecedented $1.4 billion, they had good reason to squirm. They knew very little about their new owners, except that the Sacramento-based chain had come out of nowhere to outbid heavier hitters and had an ugly reputation on the West Coast for strong-arming organized labor.

After negotiating a comfortable, five-year contract with Cowles before the sale closed, leadership at the Newspaper Guild of the Twin Cities--which represents 400 employees in the Strib's newsroom and circulation department--hoped McClatchy was, as their CEO promised, intent on improving their labor relations. Less than a year later, the guild is back on watch. Ask why and they'll tell you to look at McClatchy's track record. History, it seems, is threatening to repeat itself.

After McClatchy acquired the Tacoma News Tribune in Washington in the mid-1980s, the media conglomerate fired all of the paper's employees, who were then invited to reapply for their jobs. In the process, say representatives from the Pacific Northwest Guild, strong union supporters and senior workers were weeded out, and the craft unions were crushed (today only one local exists at the Tribune, representing pressroom workers).

In 1986 management at the Sacramento Bee--prior to the Strib's purchase, McClatchy's flagship--declared an impasse in their talks with the Northern California Newspaper Guild Local 52, which still hadn't recovered from a crippling newspaper strike ten years earlier. Wage scales had been replaced with a merit-pay system, and for the next decade, Sacramento's newsroom employees labored without a contract, despite a 1990 ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing ownership of unfair labor practices. A similar scenario played out at McClatchy's Modesto Bee and Fresno Bee. At the company's other large newspapers in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Anchorage, Alaska, there have been no disputes between labor and management, because there were and are no unions.

When McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt visited with members of the Newspaper Guild of the Twin Cities in late 1997 and early 1998, the well-spoken, well-liked executive pitched an aesthetically pleasing game. He promised no layoffs, no draconian cost cuts at the Strib, and, most memorable, talked of a "new era" in McClatchy's relations with organized labor. Before finalizing their purchase of the Stribin March 1998, McClatchy walked the talk, allowing Cowles to work out the next guild contract. In retrospect Mike Sweeney, the guild's executive officer, guesses McClatchy put Cowles in charge of the negotiations because they didn't want to come into a brand-new marketplace while carrying a billion-dollar debt from the purchase and sit down with a strong, unfamiliar union. He also believes the arrangement augured well for his membership. "We have a five-year contract, which goes through July 31, 2003," Sweeney says. "That was done on purpose, because we wanted a five-year period to see what life would be like under McClatchy."

So far McClatchy's Minneapolis era has been bullish. For the first time in five years, the Strib's visibility has increased. Circulation is up 0.6 percent to 364,000 from Monday through Saturday, and up 0.4 percent to 672,000 on Sunday. The paper's Web site was just recognized for excellence by Editor & Publisher magazine. Even the most cynical reporters in the newsroom seem enthusiastic. And why not? At the Strib's annual all-employee meeting on February 16, Pruitt-appointed publisher John Schueler proudly announced that each employee would receive a $472 bonus. Just for working hard. Just for being part of the team.

Way out West, things aren't so sunny. Since last fall the California Newspaper Guild has been back at the bargaining tables in Sacramento and Fresno, where--despite refusals from a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court to hear McClatchy's appeal of the NLRB's 1990 condemnation--management has refused to budge. According to Linda Cearley, a former reporter at the Modesto Bee and staff representative for the Newspaper Guild's International, union negotiators in Fresno and Sacramento have already given up on changing McClatchy's merit-based pay structure in California--which gives raises that reflect performance--to a wage scale that would base salaries largely on years of experience. Instead, employees in Fresno's advertising department are simply hoping to earn a better rate of commission, while reporters at both papers are pushing for improved insurance benefits.

Cearley says the guild conceded the salary structure in order to avoid another stalemate: "It [wage scales] just isn't attainable right now. This contract needs to be a building block, a foundation to build on in the future." So far the guild's strategy hasn't worked: McClatchy representatives say they're in no hurry to seal an agreement. On December 31 the contracts negotiated in Fresno and Sacramento in 1996 and 1997 ran out. At the end of this year, workers in Modesto will face their own deadline.

"Since Gary Pruitt talked about a new era in labor relations, we haven't seen any change," Cearley says. "They're showing the same attitude they did in the last go-around."

This past September, just before talks were set to begin in California, McClatchy's board of directors flew to Minnesota for a tour of the Star Tribune--the new jewel on their chain. As the suits strolled through the building and the printing plant, they were greeted by hundreds of guild members and Teamsters wearing orange stickers that read, "Minneapolis Supports Worker Bees." A few cubicles were adorned with T-shirts, printed on the coast, demanding a better contract in Sacramento.

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