Scrooged

PI Press management plays chicken with its workforce

It could be worse. At least you have a job.

If the master you serve didn't mutter some version of that phrase in 2002, then, hey, Happy New Year. Eighteen months removed from boom time, employers across the economic spectrum are once again free to blame a tight economy for their reflexive tight-fistedness. Christmas bonuses--if they didn't evaporate last year--are being replaced by wage freezes and rising health insurance costs. And if the rank and file grumble, management can always remind them it could come down to layoffs eventually.

There's no denying that the bull has long since left the building, of course. Scan the daily papers, where stories about the state's budget crisis bump up against reports of lagging consumer confidence, and it's evident that a lot of players will have to lose their chips before the odds get back to even. Still, just as the Bush administration wraps every policy initiative in the wartime rhetoric of sacrifice, corporate America's tendency to blame every fiscal nip and tuck on hard times is as insincere as it is useful.

Give the dog a bone: A screen saver for union members at the Pioneer Press
Minnesota Newspaper Guild Typographical Union
Give the dog a bone: A screen saver for union members at the Pioneer Press

Take the Pioneer Press's stubborn stance in ongoing talks with the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, which represents a vast majority of the newspaper's union employees in editorial, advertising, and circulation. The Guild's previous contract came up for renewal at the end of July, and since then the lack of meaningful exchange has necessitated the involvement of a federal mediator, who has yet to see an encouraging movement toward resolution. The union, which initially asked for a modest 4 percent wage increase, has said it could and would be flexible about money once the company came up with a good faith counterproposal. The Pioneer Press, which is owned by the San Jose-based Knight-Ridder, has not only maintained that it needs a 42-month wage freeze, but has proposed that the company's health insurance package be converted to a self-managed plan that would offer fewer choices, less control, and higher premiums. Guild members are also being asked to abandon a "strike sympathy" clause in their contract that, when push comes to shove, allows them to refuse to cross picket lines if another union at the paper strikes.

"I've never seen labor relations as bad as they are right now," says Mike Sweeney, the Guild's administrative officer and primary negotiator. "Eliminating the strike sympathy language in the contract goes right to the heart of what a union is all about. The only way to look at it is as a union-busting issue."

Asked why the Guild and the company are still so far apart, Jill Wilcox, vice president/director of employee relations and chief spokesperson for the Pioneer Press, has her company boilerplate at the ready. Why are negotiations dragging on into 2003? "I think you'll find that contracts being open beyond their expiration date for long periods of time is not unusual around the country." Is there any room for movement on either the wage issue or the health insurance hang-up? "They are very similar to other issues facing other employees at other companies." What of the unprecedented attempt to eliminate strike sympathy language? "I think actually if you look broadly at other employers, it's not an unusual request at all."

Given the financial tenor of the times, these frequent references to "other companies" are clearly an attempt to impress upon the lay reader that the Pioneer Press is suffering right along with everyone else. And it doesn't hurt that, along with those perennial rumors that the paper is about to be shuttered, there has been a steady dip in circulation over the past few years. Sweeney argues that any claims of hardship are a "red herring" designed to scare employees into thinking they can't fight for a modest wage increase or reasonable benefits. He also guesses that the Pi Press still operates with a profit margin in the mid-teens. (Knight-Ridder no longer breaks out the Pioneer Press in its quarterly reports, but in a December 17 press release, Knight-Ridder chairman and CEO Tony Ridder did brag that the company's overall revenue had seen its biggest jump since the beginning of the recession.) Sure enough, when I ask Taylor point blank whether the company's requests are born of economic need, she seems genuinely perplexed. "We have never said that," she says.

What Taylor has said, in a letter to Sweeney dated December 5, is that the Pioneer Press is "in a competitive market with the Star Tribune" and that they are "no longer willing to pay salaries at the high escalating clip that we were paying in the past." The missive goes on to point out that there is a "big difference" between saying that there is an "inability" to pay and an "unwillingness" to pay. The company has made it clear in negotiations that it is simply unwilling to pay staffers the same wages paid at the Star Tribune, where the editorial contract is also negotiated by the Guild.

The disparity between the two papers is real enough. The Strib is the 16th-largest metropolitan newspaper in the country; the Pi Press is number 53 and has half the circulation of its rival across the river. In St. Paul, however, these sorts of comparisons are in fact proving a rallying point for union members. "The essential points are that [management] wants us to compete with the Star Tribune in every facet, from newsgathering to advertising to circulation," points out Chuck Laszewski, a reporter and union steward at the Pi Press. "That's how we're measured. And we have to do it with fewer people. If you continue to open the wage gap, our people are going to keep going over there, and trying to replace those people with good-caliber folks is going to be more difficult."

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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