McClatchy Madness

Worried about job security and low pay, Jane McHatttie and three Strib colleagues voted last May to unionize
Michael Dvorak

In mid-January, the Star Tribune's advertising production employees were called to a meeting in a conference room at the company's offices in downtown Minneapolis. The purpose of the gathering was to inform the workers about the results of the company's "optimization" program, a months-long, consultant-driven process aimed at revamping the department. There were no chairs available for the employees to sit down on during the meeting.

What the employees learned was that, among other changes, their shifts would now run as late as 2:00 a.m. Previously, the last production workers were supposed to finish at 10:30 p.m. "That's when I thought I was going to need a chair," says Jill Guth, who had worked at the Strib for three years as a senior production artist. "It's kind of a blur, because it was really quite traumatic for me."

Because Guth was one of the more recent hires in the 30-plus-person department, she understood immediately that she would end up with one of the late-night shifts. "I knew that if the shifts changed later I couldn't keep my job," recalls the mother of three. "I knew that immediately."

Indeed, when the shift changes went into effect at the end of February, Guth had resigned from the newspaper. "I left without a job," she says.

Guth was joined by one other employee in quitting just before the changes in the advertising production department were implemented. In the ensuing weeks three other workers also resigned. None of those posts have been filled.

What's more, the production workers who remain are clearly not happy with the changes inspired by the "optimization" project. In fact, last month the workers filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. They are seeking to join the Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 1-M (GCC/IBT). The union vote is slated for May 2.

"One of the huge things is job security," says Mike Blazic, a business agent for the GCC/IBT. "There is none. They have no job security whatsoever. They could be eliminated on a whim."

This uncertainty about the future is only heightened by the McClatchy Co.'s pending acquisition of Knight Ridder. The $6.5 billion purchase will (at least temporarily) triple the size of the Sacramento-based newspaper chain and give it 32 newspapers across the country. This will undoubtedly leave the company highly leveraged to creditors, potentially putting greater cost pressure on the newspapers.

However, McClatchy has announced plans to sell 12 of the papers (among them the St. Paul Pioneer Press), thus offsetting some of the financial risk. Perhaps not coincidentally, 8 of the 12 papers being put on the blocks by McClatchy are unionized. The only union shop being held onto by the company is the Lexington Herald-Leader, in Kentucky.

This is not the only recent labor battle to take place at Minnesota's largest newspaper. Last year, four nonunion advertising production workers notified management that they wanted to join the collective bargaining agreement already in place for workers who perform similar tasks. When the company refused to let them join the existing bargaining unit, they held an election last May. The result was unanimous: All four workers voted to unionize.

(Shortly after the election, one of the employees quit. Since the position was left vacant, the bargaining unit was reduced to a measly three members.)

In the ensuing months, contract negotiations have gone practically nowhere. "We're negotiating for a three-person contract and the company is just sitting on it," says Jane McHattie, a classified advertising paginator and one of the workers directly affected. "They're not doing anything except making our lives miserable in the meantime."

McHattie says that the two sides have only been able to agree on seemingly simple issues like the length of the work week and the number of paid vacation days given to employees. "We haven't gotten into economic issues at all," she notes.

Blazic, the union business agent, blames this stalemate on an entrenched anti-union philosophy within McClatchy. "They like to present themselves as a very liberal newspaper," Blazic says. "The truth is they are as anti-union as you can get."

The standoff has resulted in the GCC/IBT filing a slew of unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB against the Strib in recent months. For instance, McHattie alleges that just prior to last year's election, she was told by a manager that she would no longer get Sundays off if the union was voted in. Shortly after the unanimous vote, McHattie was indeed informed that she would henceforth be working on Sundays.

She's not cowed by the hardball tactics, however. "Don't threaten me with that shit," she says. "I'm Irish. Don't piss me off."

Understanding the Strib's perspective on any of these matters is impossible. Helen Wainwright, the newspaper's vice president for human resources and labor relations, refused to answer questions. Ben Taylor, the Strib's senior vice president of communications, was no more forthcoming. "This will be a short conversation," he says. "We don't comment on labor negotiations."

Many advertising production employees at the Strib describe their workplace's climate as cheerful and productive prior to the overhaul implemented in February. "I really liked working there," says Guth, who has found a job at an advertising agency since leaving the Strib. "I had a lot of respect for the company."

But the shift changes, coupled with other modifications in their working conditions, have left the employees questioning how much the company values their contributions. "We're being treated like factory workers," says one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of getting in trouble at work. "We need to have the protection that factory workers usually have. That's a union."

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