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

"I think they want to tame the union," posits columnist Nick Coleman. "They want to scratch us behind the ears until we roll over and show them our bellies."

Bernie Hesse is more blunt: "The best-case scenario is that the company is playing chicken, seeing who will blink first or how much they can jam up the union's ass." The worst-case scenario, for which Hesse says people at the Pi-Press are starting to prepare themselves, is that Knight Ridder will not budge another inch at the negotiating table, no matter what.

The Newspaper Guild is the largest union at the Pi-Press, representing 449 employees in the newsroom and other departments, including advertising and circulation. The fact that management continues to insist on anti-sympathy strike language in the Guild contract is generally taken as a sign of the KR strategy. As Guild member Lynda Hanner says bluntly, "it looks like they want to pick off some of the smaller unions."

Kirk Anderson

Rachleff, Hesse, and others believe that KR may be trying to save money in this soft economy by going after unskilled labor at their newspapers, such as delivery drivers and the people who stuff newspapers with advertisements. Those jobs are unionized in St. Paul, and it would be much easier to tame those blue-collar workers with the Guild on a leash. "About 10 years ago, I was working with the pressmen at the paper, who were being pressured to give up their picket-line language," the professor says. "They succeeded in retaining it at the time. At a conceptual level, though, this is an idea that has been in Knight Ridder's head for a long time."

Take this theory one step further, and it is not hard to imagine that just as KR believes weakening the Guild in St. Paul could help bring other union locals to heel, they might be willing to risk a newspaper strike to send a message to unions at bigger KR papers such as the Kansas City Star and Philadelphia Inquirer: The company is still willing to play hardball, Detroit-style.

"It looks to me like Knight Ridder has run the numbers and decided that the only long-term option to keep profits high is a nonunion workforce. And I get the feeling they will try to make that point in a smaller market where it's a lot cheaper to absorb the losses that might result from pressing that point," one high-ranking executive from another large newspaper chain concluded. "I think the Pioneer Press is being made an example of. I think it could get ugly."

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