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Pioneer Press workers vote Friday on unpaid furlough

Their paper isn't bankrupt, but Pioneer Press Newspaper Guild workers will vote Friday afternoon on whether to take an unpaid five days off between Feb. 9 and April 30.

The unpaid days — which amount to a 2 percent wage cut for newsroom, circulation, advertising, business and maintenance workers — are part of a chain-wide program instituted by corporate owner MediaNews Group. Denver-based MNG has tremendous debt problems exacerbated by the advertising meltdown; the corporation has imposed the policy on non-union workers nationwide, but union members must agree to the provision.

What's the incentive for workers to take the cut? MNG has laid off eight PiPress workers since a no-layoff provision expired Jan. 1; presumably the furlough would forestall further cuts.

According to unit officer Dave Orrick, "The argument for this that [unpaid time off] saves the company money — presumably which helps protect our jobs for a little bit longer. We are willing to make some level of sacrifice or at least consider it. And we would share in the pain, not only among union members, but managers and non-union workers."

However, the Guild was unable to extract a layoff freeze from management during the 10-week period; Orrick adds, "They have not given us any assurances in the immediate term that this will save a single job."

Management won't be allowed to replace staffers with freelancers, which will make an already bare-bones paper that much tougher to put out. What's more, 70 percent of furloughs must happen by March 31 — just seven weeks away. The date is tied to the end of MNG's fiscal quarter, which is also typically when interest payments are due.

"We wanted more time, but 70 percent was as much as they were willing to concede," Orrick explains. "How badly this will hurt our operations — not just newsgathering, but people working the phones, and other areas — I'm not sure even management knows."

Orrick says Guild leadership has not recommended how members should vote. "Personally, I want to hear from both veterans and those with less seniority. This comes on extremely short notice; one would have thought they could've seen this train on the tracks for some time and come to us shortly after the first of the year. We lost at least a whole month of planning — not just planning your coverage of the news, but also [personal] financial planning. We're in the $300 $400 heating bill mode in Minnesota."

Among other provisions, workers can give up or take days if they find someone to swap with, and don't have to take them consecutively. The deal does not affect the PiPress pressmen, drivers, machinists and electricians, who have minimum staffing requirements that would eat up savings in overtime payments.

Orrick says he has not had a chance to talk to many colleagues, so isn't willing to predict how the vote will go. "I'm expecting — we're all expecting — that this will have to be, in the end, an individual decision everyone wil lhave to make on their own circumstances."

Here's the memo:

FURLOUGHS REQUESTED

A membership meeting will be held at noon Friday, Feb. 6, in the eighth-floor conference room at the Pioneer Press. During that time, a proposed agreement on furloughs (attached to this e-mail) will be discussed and a secret ballot vote will be taken. Voting will continue until 2 p.m., and you must be present to vote. Votes will be tallied immediately afterward at 2 p.m. The agreement will be voted up or down by a simple majority of members who vote.

Guild members: Citing economic need, the company has requested five-day furloughs from all Guild members starting Feb. 9. All managers and non-reps are required to participate.

Pros:

· The company saves money, and presumably, that will help it — and we workers — keep the doors open.

· We share the pain, not only with our brethren but also with managers and others who are not in the Guild.

Cons:

· There is no guarantee furloughs will prevent or even delay layoffs. (Union leaders asked for this concession, but it was denied.)

· This is short notice. All furloughs must be completed by April 30. (Union leaders succeeded in gaining an additional month. Initially, the company wanted all furloughs completed by March 31.)

· Furloughs place an additional burden on co-workers who must fill in for workers who are gone.

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