Scrooged

PI Press management plays chicken with its workforce

Neither Laszewski nor Sweeney hold out much hope that things will get any better in mediation. So they are forming "mobilization groups" to train the troops for a publicity blitz that will target loyal subscribers in St. Paul. "We will do a lot of things to make sure the general public is aware that their hometown paper is being run by an absentee landlord with a bottom-line mentality that's hurting the quality of the newspaper," Sweeney says. "Strikes are a sign of failure, in my opinion. We are going to work hard to prevent that."

The Guild's resolve, and its trust in the general public, is admirable. If the Pioneer Press were at all nervous about pro-worker propaganda, however, they'd be coming to the table with something besides static wages and a cheaper health plan for which employees will be paying more. Knight-Ridder appears willing to bank on the public's ambivalence, if not outright hostility, toward labor issues (especially ones involving whiny newspaper reporters); they seem intent on standing firm for as long as it takes to make the union buckle.

Taylor insists the Guild is negotiating with the Pioneer Press, not Knight-Ridder. When asked how much direction is coming from corporate headquarters, she won't comment. But history suggests Knight-Ridder would be more than happy to watch the battle escalate into a full-scale war of attrition. This is the media chain that not so long ago weathered the most expensive newspaper strike in U.S. history--in Detroit, beginning in 1995. That five-year struggle sent a chill through all of organized labor, in large part because a number of related court decisions made it clear that the judicial branch is no longer interested in protecting work stoppages as a legal means of employee protest. ("Knight-Ridder is very anti-union," notes Sweeney, "and has always bridled at St. Paul because of its union activity.")

Meanwhile, Guild members at the Star Tribune are gearing up to re-negotiate their contract, which runs out early next summer. There is already a growing anxiety in Minneapolis that if there is no movement in St. Paul, McClatchy Co.--which bought the Strib four years ago and has a history of animosity with its West Coast unions--will feel emboldened to play hardball.

"The thing is, these guys really are prepared to offer nothing," Sweeney concludes. "Except, of course, that you should be happy to have a job."

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