Chain Reaction

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

The board members played along. One even agreed to buy a T-shirt. The workers' action may have been good-natured, but the lines were drawn. "We wanted to express our complete solidarity with our brothers and sisters," says guild steward and Stribreporter Randy Furst, who still has a shirt hanging on his cubicle wall. "I think it was a positive thing for us as a union to collectively do something. I think it also showed the board we're serious for standing up for the workers' rights in California as well as our rights here."

"We're obviously watching what they are doing with their other guild newspapers," Mike Sweeney says of McClatchy. "We're trying to take a leadership role, since the Stribhas become McClatchy's flagship paper. Last fall, for instance, I went out to California with other guild reps from the Star Tribune to show them that we're in their corner and willing to do things to help in the bargaining."

Sweeney's travel partners in mid-September, just before the workers' action, were Stribreporters Maria Elena Baca and Mike Meyers, who spent an afternoon at all three Bees. Their intention was not only to show support but to encourage increased involvement among the local membership--a membership that, Cearley says, has been demoralized and weakened over the past ten years. "We were there in a kind of coaching position," Baca says. "We talked a lot about strategy. We talked about our own recent contract negotiations. We told them how we made up eight-by-eleven-inch posters and put them up at our desks every day, so people were aware of issues being negotiated. We told them we all have to look out for each other. That's what being in a union is all about."

"Your success in California can foretell ours in Minnesota," Meyers remembers telling the troops. "Your failure in California would be a serious worry in Minnesota. Even though we have a five-year contract, we have to go to the table, too. We don't live in a balkanized world. We're trying to get ahead of the game."

Peter CaJacob, vice president of human resources at McClatchy, says the Strib workers' action, along with visits from the likes of Baca and Meyers, have had little impact on his company's California mindset. "I think the local management at the three Beesfeel very strongly on the subject of merit pay. And I don't think what people in Minneapolis think about that will make a difference. On the corporate level, we don't expect things to change in Minneapolis in regard to labor relations. Nor do we expect Minneapolis to change the rest of our papers. Each paper has quite a bit of autonomy."

And about union bashing? "That's not a corporate objective," CaJacob says.

Despite this laissez-faire rhetoric, Sweeney is keeping close watch on McClatchy's corporate maneuvering in California, and he's encouraging union membership to do the same. Last month he sent a note to the guild's representative assembly, warning them that McClatchy's current behavior speaks louder than words. The message was clear: The Newspaper Guild of the Twin Cities may be strong now, but it's not invincible.

"A comment was made a month or so ago during negotiations in Sacramento that got my attention," Sweeney says. "When someone from the guild mentioned the Star Tribune's contract as an example of what they wanted to go to, the bargainer on the other side said, 'Your goal may be to get McClatchy where the Star Tribune is, but our goal is to take the Star Tribune where McClatchy is.' So hey, do we care what McClatchy does with the unions out there? You bet.

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