The Next Battle in the Newspaper Wars

The specter of a newspaper strike looms in St. Paul --but no matter what happens, the Pioneer Press will never be the same

"We're the underdog," explains reporter Karl Karlson. "And nine of ten times the underdog gets the shit kicked out of them. Someone calls with a tip, and we literally don't have the bodies to follow up. This is the newsroom where story leads come to die."

To make matters worse, explains another veteran reporter, the Pi-Press's shrinking staff is less experienced, less acquainted with the community it's covering, and less interested in sticking around. "It's like the Pinochet regime: We're all colleagues of the disappeared," she says. "When Sen. Wellstone's plane crashed, it was chaos. Editors ran around, interns ran around, and senior people just sat on their hands all day. The editor in charge of the story didn't know to tap those people, just didn't know what to do." (This observation is especially telling, given that Pi-Press Editor Vicki Gowler says that her paper's coverage of the Wellstone crash--along with pieces about the Minnesota Wild's 2003 championship run--best exemplifies how the Pi-Press can still show up the Strib on a local story.)

Staffers at the Pi-Press are acutely aware that KR means to try squeezing even more money out of its papers. In fact, an e-mail recently circulated among union workers around the chain claiming that KR editors have been instructed to come up with another $100 million in company-wide savings. Suggested measures include creating a national reporting team to provide coverage of wars, politics, and other "major events" for the entire chain, eliminating diversity initiatives, considering the inclusion of advertising on the bottom of sections' front pages, and centralized copy editing for all the papers.

KR also seems to be in the mood to tame its unionized work force at a number of properties. In St. Paul, the Guild will likely either have to swallow hard on a number of previously unthinkable concessions, or call the company's bluff and risk the possibility of an all-out strike.

 

Detroit.

Mention the word to union advocates in nearly any industry and they will shudder. For many, the newspaper strike that took place in that city not only represented a new day for media companies like Knight Ridder, but a turning point for organized labor across the country. "Hanging over this strike is an unmistakable feeling that an era has passed," Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post wrote in the midst of the labor battle. "That--even here in Detroit, the spiritual center of American unionism--an old-fashioned union fight might, in this day and age, be insignificant and even a little quaint."

Beginning on July 13, 1995, and for the next 583 days, some 2,500 workers from six unions at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News fought against the papers' owners, Gannett and KR, who had started the ball rolling when they signed a joint operating agreement in 1990. The strike was an unmitigated disaster not unlike the 1980s Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota. Both Gannett and KR lost money (not to mention circulation and talent), but the News and Press both published scab papers for the entire 19 months of the strike and, in the end, it was the Teamsters and the Newspaper Guild who gave up. According to the Metro Times, an alternative weekly in Detroit, only a third of the strikers ultimately returned to their jobs. The rest had "either moved away, found other jobs, been fired, or died. And those who are back at work are often making less money and now labor in an open shop, where union membership is no longer required."

Until just recently, it was hard to find many employees at the Pi-Press who believed that a similar scenario would unfold in St. Paul. The Guild has faced tough negotiations in the past, of course, but always with a sense that the sides would reach agreement. During the last round of contract talks, in fact, union members even agreed to settle for fewer resources and less money than Guild members at the Star Tribune. What's more, the presence of that competition, hypothetically at least, was sure to make management think twice about a labor stoppage, since another paper would be more than happy to fill the void.

Over the last year, though, it has become clear that Knight Ridder is in no mood to negotiate in St. Paul, no matter how modest the demands or how long negotiations drag out. The typographers have been without a contract since 2001, talks between management and the machinists have been stalled since last October, the Newspaper Guild has been without a contract for nearly a year now, and the drivers who deliver the Pi-Press have to start negotiating for a new contract at the end of 2003. "We have to remember who we are dealing with here," says Peter Rachleff, a professor at Macalester College who specializes in labor. "This is not the Pioneer Press, this is a multinational corporation. The notion of our hometown paper being shut down is very hard to imagine. But this is a company that has done this very thing in other communities. And I don't think there is any principled reason that they would not do it here."

But why do it? The Guild is only asking for a moderate raise and the Pi-Press is making money. Ultimately, that's something only KR executives would know, and they're not talking. (Polk Laffoon, vice president of corporate relations in San Jose, said he did not know anything about union issues in St. Paul and that no one at corporate headquarters, including Tony Ridder, would comment.) There are a number of theories, though, as to the company's motives.

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