Dispatches from the Next Newspaper War

Wounded egos, labor actions, and Powerpoint presentations at the Pioneer Press

A Pride Swallowing Siege: A month ago, I wrote a story about the growing possibility of a newspaper strike at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where 449 members of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild have been working without a contract for over a year. The main thrust of the piece was that the publicly traded, San Jose-based Knight Ridder, which owns the Pi-Press, wants to raise the bar for print media profitability, and is looking to beef up its bottom line on the backs of an already burdened workforce.

Reporters at the Pi-Press reluctantly told me that it's become harder to keep pace with the Star Tribune, which is growing its circulation and becoming a much more aggressive news organization. One source, quoted anonymously and backed up by two others, said that the day Sen. Wellstone's plane crashed, the newsroom was in "chaos," evidence that the paper's shrinking staff is less experienced.

Before my piece was published, very little had been written about the paper's labor plight, and beleaguered Guild members were beginning to itch for exposure. After the story hit the streets, though, it was the Wellstone anecdote that sparked the most immediate and intense conversations among staffers at the Pi-Press, not the economic issues involved or the various theories as to what the company might be up to. At one point, conjecture over who dared question the first day of the Wellstone coverage got so heated that a friend of mine at the paper asked that I stop sending her e-mails at work, lest people think she was Deep Throat.

I thought they all missed the point. By sitting and keening over the Wellstone passage--one paragraph in a 4,000-word story--the Pi-Pressers betrayed pretty thin skins. They also played right into management's hands. Even though almost everyone in the newsroom will privately claim that Knight Ridder is gutting their "hometown" newspaper, it's clear the troops will still rally around the flag in public.

But that doesn't mean it's the Knight Ridder flag they mean to defend. The episode exemplifies just how much pride journalists take in their work--and how much it smarts to swallow that pride, no matter what the reason.

Ironically, management will likely manipulate that pride, coupled with the rank and file's faith in the continued viability of the Pi-Press, as negotiations heat up this month. "These workers have a part of themselves invested in the quality of the product they're producing," says Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College. "And it's for that very reason that it will be difficult [emotionally for them] to get into a nose-to-nose, knock-down-drag-out battle."

Employees at the Pi-Press are now in the unenviable position of having to choose between their newspaper and their union. And while it's becoming clear that Guild members will have to put their jobs in jeopardy to get what they deserve, that decision will neither be automatic nor easy--which may be one reason why Knight Ridder is refusing to back off or back down.

 

Information Overload: A few weeks ago, Jill Taylor, vice president of employee relations at the Pi-Press, put together a PowerPoint presentation and began gathering together small groups of employees for a "review of the negotiations process." She says the purpose of the exercise was to bring people up to speed, not to change minds or carry water for the company: "We have taken information that's been presented at the table and put it into a very straightforward format."

By the time Taylor finally contacted the Guild office to tell them about the informal confabs, however, a number of meetings had already taken place. The union cried foul. Mike Sweeney, the Guild's executive officer, fired off a letter to Taylor on July 28, requesting a complete list of when and where the gatherings took place, the names of all managers who participated, and a digital copy of the PowerPoint presentation. Additionally, the Guild demanded "equal time to meet with union members in similar-size groups, at the paper, during the workday."

The Guild also filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that management was attempting to skirt the bargaining process by negotiating directly with union members. A spokesperson at the NLRB's regional office says the agency has 75 days to make a decision as to whether or not the charge has merit. If the case goes forward, an administrative law judge will pass nonbonding judgment. If the union prevails there, and management decides to contest the ruling, the case could go all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals. "These sorts of complaints take a long, long time to process," explains Professor Rachleff. "And even in the rare cases when the union prevails, it happens long after the situation has changed."

A number of people I talked to who attended Taylor's presentation say it had a coercive tone and noted that attendees were either visibly cynical (rolling their eyes and crossing their arms) or openly hostile (peppering their hostess with questions they knew she wouldn't or couldn't answer). When Bill Weyandt, who took a leave of absence from the paper's technology department to work as a strike coordinator, tried to attend one of the presentations, he was forced to leave the building. "It was a meeting for our employees," Taylor explains. "He's being paid by the Guild."

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