Bent Over Backward
Last week, after a 19-hour bargaining session, the Minnesota Newspaper Guild hammered out a tentative agreement with management at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Anyone who doubts that profit-hungry executives in Knight Ridder's San Jose headquarters have been manipulating local management's strings during negotiations over the past year need only read the fine print.
The five-year contract would result in an average wage increase of 2.2 percent for the 484 members of the paper's largest union, who work in departments including the newsroom, advertising, and circulation. Many workers say they would actually see their net wages decrease, however, because of an increase in health insurance costs (especially for those with family coverage). Members of the Guild would also forfeit their right to honor the picket lines of other unions at the paper for the life of the contract.
In other words, if the settlement is ratified, workers at the newspaper won't be any better off than they were when their contract expired 14 months ago, and organized labor in their shop will be fundamentally weakened. "You could say [management] moved a little on wages, but the big three issues--wages, health insurance, and strike sympathy language--remain the same," says Chuck Laszewski, a reporter and union steward at the Pioneer Press. "It does move us from the arena of the unknown. Now it's up to us to have a little gut check and decide how we want to vote."
According to sources close to the bargaining process, management made it clear before the final negotiating session on August 19 that they absolutely would not bend on the subject of strike sympathy. This inflexibility is particularly telling, since three other contracts have expired at the paper, a fourth is coming up this winter, and industry analysts believe Knight Ridder is preparing to boost profit margins by quashing smaller unions in its 31-newspaper chain.
There was also a sense that if some sort of agreement wasn't forged during this last go-around, the company would walk away from the table and declare an impasse. At that point, the Guild would have to take a strike vote--a risk, since it has never been clear how far union members were willing to go in the name of either economics or solidarity. "[Management] seems to be saying, Take it or leave it; we're a business, this is how we're going to operate, and we're done dealing," says Lisa Donovan, a reporter at the Pi Press. "It's outrageous and it's disappointing."
Since the beginning, executives in St. Paul and San Jose have behaved as though they believed that when it came right down to it, workers would consider the economy, remember the long, painful strike Knight Ridder endured in Detroit in 1995, and fold their cards. Over the next two weeks, members of the Guild will be in the unenviable position of deciding whether to call the bluff--and the stakes couldn't be any steeper. "If the membership were to vote down the contract, they would almost have to move immediately to a strike vote," Laszewski guesses. And the early odds? "You just never know what could happen. It's going to be close."
The Green and Gold: Just before reporters in the Pi Press newsroom were presented with their new "deal" last week, members of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild at the Star Tribune approved a five-year contract by a 248-62 vote. There were no concessions on health care or strike sympathy language, and the bargaining process, while spirited, was relatively painless (the Strib's contract just expired at the end of July). Still, staffers grumbled a bit about the 2.6 percent wage increase, which they believe to be stingy, considering McClatchy's recent economic performance. It didn't help morale much when a memo was sent out the day after the deal was inked, informing staff that the newspaper was going to spend its precious resources to hire a new, full-time reporter to cover the Green Bay Packers.
It's a move that's hard to sell to newsroom purists, who would rather see more money spent on special projects or to shore up metro coverage. It's a good guess, though, that a few more folks in the paper's advertising and circulation departments will be decorating their cubicles green and gold this football season. The Pi Press has been losing circulation in the eastern suburbs and in western Wisconsin, where they still dominate, and the Strib would love nothing more than to see cheeseheads--an infamously loyal lot--change teams.
Magers's League: If you've read, seen, or heard any of the dozens of stories about Paul Magers this past week, then you know the anchor's decision to leave for a higher-paying, higher-profile gig in L.A. puts KARE-11's market dominance at risk, in particular because adult female viewers apparently can't get enough of the "anchor god" (copyright C.J.), and advertisers are willing to spend millions to reach that demographic.
As members of our towns' provincial media literally tripped over one another to laud Magers, lament his loss, and speculate as to who could--or would dare try to--fill his broad shoulder pads, though, it became obvious that KARE might need to worry about losing a few of its male viewers as well. And no, I'm not just talking about the guys who find those primary-colored threads from International Male or that multihued hair endearing. I'm talking about aging jocks, loudmouthed frat boys, and fellows for whom the phrase "garage logic" is not oxymoronic; men's men who, for one reason or another, seem so drawn to Magers's rakish wit and all-season tan that news of his departure has prompted them to get in touch with their more sensitive selves.
Channel 4 anchor Don Shelby got the ball rolling in the Star Tribune's initial report on August 19. "He's not only clever, charming, witty, and an exacting reader," Shelby fawned. "He's just one of the best-looking men God ever created." (I'd like to pause for a moment at this point to also note that the Magers story got top billing in the Strib that day. That means page one, above the fold, under the masthead. Now, granted, only one U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq during the news cycle, but I wonder whether there might not have been a more appropriate spot for a day-old piece of inside-media minutia.)
Knowing Shelby likes his humor dry, I initially imagined the soon-to-be elder statesman was just kidding around; just like those gals at my hair salon the other day, trying to decide who had a cuter butt, KARE's Rick Kupchella (tight but firm) or Frank Vascellaro (baby's got back!). After listening to AM talk radio on and off over the past week, however, I'm not so sure something truly heartfelt hasn't sprung from the collective closet. In particular, I couldn't help but notice that the boys at KFAN, solidly heterosexual (they'll have you know at the bottom of every hour) went out of their way on a number of occasions to let it all hang out. During Chad Hartman's show, an impromptu contest actually broke out to find the best adjective to describe that "really, really handsome" talking head. The word "fetching" was a favorite. There was no hint of sarcasm--not even a giggle.
Now, even though I've never really been drawn to Magers (KARE's Eric Perkins seems less threatening and somehow more tender in a goofy sort of way), I have to admit seeing Magers cry on TV the morning after his difficult decision weakened my bum knees for a moment. Then I noticed the interview was being aired on Magers's station and I felt my face flush red. I was angry at KARE for disguising a promo spot as breaking news (stop the presses!); I was also embarrassed for Magers, who seems like a decent chap and, if you're into that sort of thing, can indeed be quite fetching.
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