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Star Tribune pressmen approve layoffs, wage cuts

By a vote of 72-5, the Star Tribune's pressmen have accepted layoffs and unspecified wage concessions. The one Strib union that held firm against concessions last summer, the pressmen were finally undone by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain's threat last week to invalidate their ten-year contract.

According to the union's lawyer, Andrew Staab, 24 members of the 116-person local will be laid off.

"There will be a request for volunteers. If there aren't enough volunteers, then there will be layoffs in order of reverse seniority," Staab said in an e-mail statement. "Those who stay will see wage concessions, and there are different percentages with each category. Just accept there are wage concessions."

The 24 layoffs come after 19 imposed last fall. Before the two sides hurriedly agreed to terms late last week, management had sought $3.5 million in annual cuts as part of $20 million package from all Strib unions. It's unclear how much the new deal saves, though in a Tuesday night story, the Strib reporter David Phelps restated the $3.5 million amount and indicated wage cuts were "believed to be in the range of 17-40 percent."

Noted Staab, "In spite of the lopsided vote margin, there was a great deal of reluctance and anger. But the alternative was no agreement with the company at all. At least the Pressmen have an agreement until November 30, 2010, when negotiations can occur for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement."

As recent events have shown, a Strib contract isn't necessarily worth the paper it's written on. Management can ask to reopen negotiations at any time. The paper's mailers accepted a deal Sunday that mandates negotiations if the Strib's revenue falls a certain amount. It's not known if the pressmen agreed to such a codicil.

It's also unclear how the new deal affects recent talk about combining print operations with the Pioneer Press. The St. Paul pressmen's deal expires in March 2010.

Staab's email indicates that the pressmen refused to move "into the company's unfunded medical reimbursement plan that is financially backed by an insolvent corporation." The Teamsters have wanted to remain in their own well-funded plan, but in bankruptcy court, the Strib said they would no longer subsidize such a plan, meaning workers would have to pay more to stay where they are.

The Strib is also freezing its pension and 401(k) contributions. Writes Staab, "The status of the company's pension obligations is that the company intends to no longer pay and trigger withdrawal liability which in turn will be constructively discharged in the Chapter 11 Plan.  The company has a commercial contingency plan to add parttime workers, which the Pressmen accepted."

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