Dispatches from the Next Newspaper War

Michael Dvorak

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."

"It's funny," Weyandt quips, "our members have been getting static from managers about taking their daily break to step outside and show solidarity with the union. But those same managers offered to fill in if people wanted to attend Taylor's dog and pony show."


Where's Billy Bragg when you need him?: The growing acrimony between labor and management at the Pi-Press is starting to wear some employees down, and two sources in the newsroom told me late last week that there's a small contingent of employees who are starting to grumble that the time's come to make a deal. A majority of the Guild's members, however, are getting angrier by the day and believe Taylor's PowerPoint strategy only proves management is getting nervous.

On Friday, about 80 people turned out for Black Friday Break for Solidarity outside the newspaper's headquarters at 345 Cedar Street. Marchers wore black, carried signs, and held out hope that a "surprise musical guest" would show up to provide further inspiration. Alas, the entertainment reporter who tried to set up the appearance didn't have enough clout to guarantee the gig.

This week, representatives from the Guild will be pressing the flesh at the Minneapolis Hilton, where Minnesota's AFL-CIO is gathering for a statewide convention. A number of local unions have already penned letters of support and sent them to Pi-Press Publisher Harold Higgins, including the Central Labor Union Council and the American Postal Workers Union. Weyandt says the short-term goal is to get as many union-friendly folks as possible to sign a subscription cancellation pledge. So far, nearly 500 people have agreed to stop buying the Pi-Press if there is a work stoppage.

In order to prepare for a possible strike later this fall, forms are currently being distributed that give Guild members an opportunity to choose what times of the day they would prefer to picket. "There's no doubt a majority of our members are getting feistier," Weyandt says.


Pride, Part 2: Labor and management at the Pi-Press are sitting down for the first of two bargaining sessions today, August 13. The next meeting is August 19. Both sides agree that three major issues remain unresolved: wages, health care premiums, and strike sympathy language, which currently allows Guild members to walk off the job if another of the paper's smaller unions decides to strike.

Senior Pi-Press employees I've talked to this summer have suggested that it's the strike sympathy language, more than anything else, that is hanging up talks. Agreeing not to cross a co-worker's picket line is "a bedrock principle of unionism," columnist Nick Coleman told me in early July; management's insistence to take away that right is "a union busting strategy I can't accept."

Guild officer Mike Sweeney also notes that there are three other contracts out at the Pioneer Press, and if the Guild, which is the paper's largest union, gives up their sympathy language it all but guarantees that Knight Ridder will squash their smaller unions to save money. When I asked Jill Taylor if there is any chance the company would consider taking strike sympathy language off the table this week, in a good faith effort to avoid a strike vote, she would only repeat that it was still a "serious issue."

Rachleff guesses that the executives at Knight Ridder who advise Taylor are gambling that, when things get tight, Guild members at the Pi-Press will ultimately act purely out of self-interest. But the professor also believes the same sort of pride that drives the paper's best journalists to quibble over an anonymous quote might be the X-factor management is forgetting to consider. "This isn't only about what members of the Newspaper Guild feel they owe to other workers at the paper; I believe it's about their sense of self. To cave in now would be an affront to their self-respect. Now, of course, management probably has convinced themselves with research and reason that at a certain point this union will give in. But it seems to me there's an e minently human factor here that can't be predicted."

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