A House Divided

David Witt

Last week, the worker bees in the newsroom at the Star Tribune placed small paper pup tents on their cubicles and computer monitors. On the pup tents are written these pointed words: "Fewer lawyers, more journalists. Money the company is using to sue the Guild could be better spent filling empty desks."

The reason for the silent protest? Paul Douglas--or, more precisely, five news stories that the unassuming TV weatherman authored for the Strib last year. In the view of the Newspaper Guild Typographical Union, which represents reporters and other rank-and-file newsroom employees at the Strib, the placement of the Douglas articles in the paper's A and B sections violated a provision of the collective bargaining agreement that governs the use of so-called "freelance experts."

So in April 2004, the union filed a formal grievance. In keeping with existing protocols, the matter was referred to a mutually agreed-upon arbitrator, James Lundberg. After the slow churn through the process, Lundberg finally issued a ruling on March 31 of this year. Citing both jurisdictional language in the contract and the paper's past practices involving the use of freelance material, Lundberg ruled in favor of the guild and thus put an end to the matter.

Or so guild members thought. Earlier this month, Strib management squelched the high-fiving in the newsroom by filing a formal appeal of Lundberg's ruling in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. It was, to say the least, a highly unusual move. No one in the union could recall the Strib appealing an arbitrator's award previously, and Strib spokesman Ben Taylor says there is no record of any past appeals by the company.

"There is a lot of anger about this. As one guild member said to me, 'What part of binding arbitration don't they understand?'" says Strib business editor and guild unit chair Eric Wieffering. In an e-mail distributed to union newsroom employees, Wieffering put it even more bluntly. "How would you define sore loser?" he wrote. "How about a company that insists on binding arbitration, gets whipped, and then files a federal lawsuit to have the arbitrator's ruling thrown out?"

The company's appeal, Wieffering concluded in the e-mail, "serves as another reminder--as if one was needed--about management's regard for the role and rights of the Guild."

Wieffering notes that while the paper's lawsuit will cost the union money, it is a long shot to succeed, which is one of the reasons rank-and-file Stribbers were so galled by the company's action.

In fact, "301 lawsuits"--as federal appeals of arbitration rulings are called--are very rare, according to Joe Daly, a law professor at Hamline University and a professional arbitrator. It is even more rare for arbitrator's decisions to be overturned. In Minnesota, Daly says, he knows of only one arbitrator's ruling that was overturned by a court. (That case involved an arbitrator's reinstatement of a Brooklyn Park police officer fired for sexual harassment.) As a rule, Daly observes, appeals only succeed in the event of demonstrable bias, fraud, or gross legal overreaching.

That, argues Strib spokesman Taylor, is precisely what Lundberg did. "We believe the arbitrator is essentially rewriting the contract. Our contract does not say anything about where expert writing can appear in the paper." Taylor contends that the guild has overreacted to the company's decision to appeal the ruling. "They are essentially arguing that we should not be using our legal remedies. For journalists to be taking that position is a little baffling to us," Taylor says.

Taylor is equally dismissive of the guild's legal arguments, which he says amount to an argument that the Strib--which he acknowledges has not traditionally used freelance experts in the A and B sections of the paper--"shouldn't do this because we've never done it before." "You play that logic out and we'd never do anything differently. It's an absurd argument," Taylor says. As a matter of principle, he says, management decided it had to appeal.

Wieffering agrees that important principles are at stake--and possibly some jobs. "If the company had free rein, they could use freelancers that would dramatically take away guild work. Why fill empty desks if you can just have freelance experts do the work? Is that the company end game? I don't think so, but I don't know."

The dispute, which has left the newsroom more polarized than at any time in recent years, comes during what should be happy times at the Newspaper of the Twin Cities. After all, according to the most recent report from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the Strib posted the largest growth in circulation of any of the nation's 20 top newspapers (and was one of just four to record any gain).

But, say some newsroom employees, you wouldn't guess that from the tenor of the many mandatory meetings held at the paper recently. Ostensibly, says one veteran reporter, the conclaves have been called because management is looking for worker input. "But instead we've gotten a lot of scary lectures about how newspapers are going to die and how we better get with the program or we're not going to have any jobs."

Some newsroom employees suspect that Strib editor Anders Gyllenhaal was behind the decision to fight the guild tooth-and-nail on the Douglas arbitration. Gyllenhaal did not return a call seeking comment for this story, and company spokesman Taylor says it would be inappropriate for the editor to comment on a case that is now in federal court.

But if Guild members need any more insight into their enigmatic leader's views on the place of labor, they might do well to turn to the pages of their own newspaper. In a column published last September, under the heading "Series finds fears of outsourcing unfounded," Gyllenhaal mused on the paper's investigation into the exporting of jobs to China and its effects on Minnesota businesses. Outsourcing, Gyllenhaal concluded, is "leading to expansion at many companies and overall has been good for the regional economy."

Does he believe similar principles apply at 425 Portland Avenue? Evidently, that's for him to know, and his underlings to find out.

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