Newspaper Wars, West Metro Edition

Guild members at the Star Tribune worry about their contract and wonder about their editor

Last Thursday night, some 15 members of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild who work in the Star Tribune's newsroom canvassed the Metrodome, offering free score cards to Twins fans. If nothing else, it was an entertaining scene.

The only passersby to snatch up the canary yellow cardboard sheets were too young to keep score or already too buzzed on pre-game beer to care. Most everyone else greeted the Strib staffers with a suspicious glance, and then either took the handout haltingly or stared down at the sidewalk. Indoctrinated consumers all, they assumed there was a catch. Of course, they were right.

On the other side of the score card were the big, bold phrase, "Hey Star Tribune, Let's Play Ball!" and an eight-paragraph message from the newspaper's editorial department. "This is the first time we've negotiated a contract with California-based McClatchy Newspapers, which bought the newspaper in 1998," the flier reads. "McClatchy says it wants a labor agreement by July 31, but the foot-dragging by this out-of-town corporation and its hired gun says otherwise."

It's a good guess that only a handful of folks managed to digest the screed. Those who did, however, may have been overcome by a sense of déjà vu. Last January, about 75 members of the Newspaper Guild who work for the Pioneer Press canvassed the Xcel Energy Center, giving away lineup cards to Wild fans. On the back of the canary yellow cardboard sheets, it said that employees at St. Paul's hometown newspaper were being stonewalled during ongoing contract negotiations with San Jose-based Knight Ridder. "We watched what they did over at the Pioneer Press and thought we'd give it a try," explains Steve Brandt, a Strib reporter and Guild member. "It should be said, though, that we're nowhere near the point they're at in St. Paul."

It's all but certain that 449 union members at the Pi-Press, who have been working without a contract for a year, will either have to make a number of unprecedented concessions at the bargaining table or threaten a work stoppage, perhaps as soon as September. This does not come as a surprise to those who have been following the scene in St. Paul. Committed to earning its stockholders unprecedented dividends, Knight Ridder has made a show of streamlining its 31 newspapers, with little regard for the average reader and even less respect for its own work force.

The way McClatchy is playing hardball with the Strib's 381 Guild members, on the other hand, has been a bit of a shock to a number of people in the union. "Had you talked to me five months ago, I would've said there's no chance in hell there could be a strike here," says Strib columnist and Guild member Doug Grow. "Now, it's important to note that I still do not think there will be [a strike]. But there are a couple of things you could see stumbling into a strike, because the issues are so fundamental."

Contract talks are always contentious, of course, and it was clear after looking at McClatchy's last quarterly report that the chain, which consists of 11 daily and 11 non-daily newspapers, would be coming to the table with a tight fist. "Our newspapers have not endured a labor strike since 1980. However, we cannot ensure that a strike will not occur at one or more of our newspapers in the future," the document, published in early May, concludes. "Even if our newspapers do not suffer a labor strike, the Company's operating results could be harmed if the results of labor negotiations restrict our ability to maximize the efficiency of its newspaper operations."

In fact, when McClatchy's negotiator recently offered the Guild a one percent increase in wages, members were neither surprised nor particularly concerned. "I would say the economic side of negotiations has gone reasonably true to form," Brandt says. "What distinguishes this negotiation from past negotiations in the minds of Guild members is the degree to which the company has made proposals in the area of working conditions."

Reportedly, management wants the right to transfer workers from position to position, alter salaries if job descriptions change, allow editors to assign more work to freelance journalists, and take away certain grievance procedures. Additionally, there is a proposal that would allow nonunion managers at the paper to edit stories; this is particularly significant, since the Strib is one of the only newspapers left in the country where only union employees can physically alter copy. "Here's the thing," explains Strib columnist Doug Grow. "That's our work. That's all any of us has. If I negotiate with that work, or give away that work, five years from now there won't be a job for someone."

Grow, like a vast majority of Guild members at the Strib, did not participate in last Thursday's labor action at the Metrodome. There are still four bargaining sessions scheduled between now and August 31, when the current five-year contract expires. For some, especially those sitting at the bargaining table, the feeling is that fueling the fire now would be counterproductive. Others, like Grow, just have a hard time believing the general public is going to care much about the needs of career journalists in a soft economy. "I guess I just don't expect a guy going to the Twins game to give a rip," he says with a laugh. "At this point, I just think it's something to be dealt with internally."

Two weeks ago, 320 Guild members signed a petition and 30 of them walked it to the front door of executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal's office. The purpose of the exercise was to express disappointment in the company's lack of flexibility in bargaining and to point out that a number of the most troubling proposals on the table have been proffered in the editor's name. "What would Anders think if McClatchy wanted to demote him and cut his pay while taking away an existing right to challenge those moves?" asks Guild member and Strib reporter Mike Meyers. "What would Anders think if McClatchy topped all of that off with an offer of a one percent raise?"

Gyllenhaal, a McClatchy prodigy brought in to replace Tim McGuire in June 2002, came directly from the company's News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, with a reputation for an even hand and strong sense of story. In his first year, the paper's staff--which had grown weary of McGuire's scattershot management style and ever-cautious news judgment--has been inspired to produce a better paper.

Over the last couple of months, though, there have been rumblings that Gyllenhaal has become increasingly inaccessible, more apt to delegate authority than directly engage with the rank and file. Now, news that he is asking for more middle managers and more "managerial horsepower" at the bargaining table has, for the first time, caused reporters to wonder out loud whether McClatchy brought Gyllenhaal to Minneapolis to help them tame the Guild. "What we do know is that we have a new editor here who comes from a non-union environment," Steve Brandt says. "And it appears he is interested in adapting his newsroom to his experiences, rather than adapt himself to the environment he chose to lead."

When contacted to comment for this story, Gyllenhaal said he could not talk while labor negotiations were at a sensitive point. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, he has to say after the Guild and management settle on a contract. "He came in here with a bank-load of goodwill, and it would be a tragedy to see him stand against staff on issues that virtually everyone agrees on," concludes Strib reporter and Guild member Jon Tevlin. "He has the opportunity to step up and be the hero."

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