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Tentative deal: Pioneer Press workers trade pay cuts for layoff ban

With the major proviso that workers have not approved anything yet, the Pioneer Press Newspaper Guild announced a tentative agreement trading pay and hours cuts for a no-layoff pledge through January 2011.

In a memo to members (below), Guild negotiators explained that if they didn't accept management's cost-cutting demands, "25 to 26" workers would be laid off immediately. The Pioneer Press Newspaper Guild represents newsroom, advertising and circulation employees.

The existing contract runs through July 2011, but Denver-based owner Media News Group has insisted on cuts for many months; the Guild agreed in November to renegotiate. In the memo, union leaders blame the cuts on "severe financial stress triggered both by the continuing revenue decline and by the debt incurred during the Media News purchase of the Pioneer Press" in April 2006.

In December, Media News executives predicted a debt restructuring plan would be completed by the end of the current quarter.

There is, of course, no guarantee this newest contract won't also be torn up, since that appears to be standard operating procedure these days. Still, a contractual no-layoff provision does give workers enhanced security; a similar provision held firm in a recent contract. At least for 12 months, management has less leverage if they want employees to agree to renegotiations.

All told, PiPressers will see their workweek cut from 40 hours to 37.5. They must also take an unpaid one-week furlough, lose their company 401(k) match, and forgo a scheduled 3 percent wage bump. The union estimates workers will be paid 9-10 percent less for 8 percent fewer hours. Of course, this means less time for news-gathering — the paid kind anyway.

The union did fight off other proposed cuts. Night workers did not lose extra pay, and low-seniority workers will get annual "step" raises.

Here's the memo:

Guild negotiators, Pioneer Press reach tentative agreement on contract modifications

Two days of difficult negotiations between the company and Guild negotiators have resulted in a tentative agreement to modify our contract. It includes painful cuts but is coupled with job protection — a reasonable tradeoff at a time when our newspaper, like the entire industry, faces daunting financial challenges. We did our best to mitigate harm while protecting jobs.

Nothing would change until and unless the members of our unit vote to ratify the contract provisions that we, your negotiating committee, will be recommending. We have scheduled an initial informational meeting for 3:30 p.m. tomorrow, Friday, Jan. 15 at the Crown Plaza Hotel. We will meet in the Kellogg Room on the first floor. We plan to schedule a vote on Friday, Jan. 22; additional details will follow. Your negotiating committee members will be available to discuss these issues any time before the vote.

The company held firm to a demand that we meet their needs for financial relief. They eventually agreed to our demand that any cuts be tied to a no-layoff agreement. The Guild’s analysis of the newspaper’s financial records showed severe financial stress triggered both by the continuing revenue decline and by the debt incurred during the Media News purchase of the Pioneer Press. We were told to expect 25 or 26 immediate layoffs if no agreement was reached.

We tried, as much as possible, to make the cuts equitable, and not to impact one group of workers more than another. We sought, and believe we succeeded, to trade time off for pay, rather than merely taking a direct pay cut. In that vein we succeeded in preserving the hourly wage rate, night differential, step increases and merit pay, but we lost the company’s 401k contribution, which does disproportionately affect some of us more than others.

Here are the provisions of the tentative agreement:

JOB SECURITY — The company will not lay off any Guild members through the last payroll period before Feb. 1, 2011.

SHORTER WEEK — The agreement provides for a 37.5-hour work week. That means Guild members lose 2.5 hours of pay per week, or about 6.25 percent per year. If you work more than 37.5 hours, you would be paid straight time up to 40 hours, and then overtime would kick in. Our 40-hour week would “snap back” at the end of the last payroll period before Feb. 1, 2011, the same time that layoff protection ends.

ONE FURLOUGH WEEK — Guild members must take one unpaid week between July 1 to Dec. 31 of this year, under the same terms as last year’s furlough.

FROZEN 401K CONTRIBUTION — The company’s match to our 401k contributions, now pegged at up to 3 percent, would end if this agreement is approved. That means employees can continue to save in the Media News 401k plan, but the company will not provide any match.

NO PAY HIKE — A 3 percent across-the-board pay increase, negotiated to take effect in July as part of our current contract, is lost.

NOVEMBER UPDATE — We agree to meet again with the company in November, without committing to any further changes in the contract.

The shortened work week amounts to a 6.25 percent pay cut, but we do get the time (albeit in small increments) in return. The furlough translates roughly to a 2 percent cut, also a trade of money for time. The pay hike that we will not be getting is 1.5 percent over half a year (3 percent over the full year.) Adding it up, we will be taking home 9-10 percent less this year than called for in the contract. But it’s also true that we will be working 8 percent fewer hours.

Once we realized that significant financial reductions were unavoidable, our goal was to protect the integrity of the newspaper by preventing further job losses. In short, we opted to take less money in order to protect jobs and the newspaper. We realize it is a difficult choice but we think, on balance, it is the best — or the least bad — option.

Gayle Grundtner
Sandy Kelch
Meggen Lindsay
Jim Ragsdale
Greg Sundeen

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Comments (3)

Both my father and maternal grandfather put in 30 years in the pressroom of the former Pioneer Press and Dispatch. Two of my brothers and I delivered both papers for some years. I threw Sunday bundles on Saturday nights for a time.

It saddens me to believe that it is only a matter of time until the last remnant of the paper is gone. But that appears to be the case. This latest agreement really provides no guarantee of jobs to anyone, because the paper need only file bankruptcy to terminate the contracts. However, it may be the best that employees can hope for at this point, a bridge to retirement for some, time to consider a new career for others.

on the issue of the Guild agreement for the pioneer press. lets see a reduction to a 37.5 work week. the job still has to get done so what is managements plan to cover this blank spot? or will they just hold the workers accountable for work not being completed within the new time constraints? what kind of reductions have the management and the attorneys who are negotiating the reduction taking? what kind of reductions are the paid staffers from the Guild -- who vigorously bargained this agreement taking? if management has not stated how they plan to cover the reduction in available work time -doesn't a 37.5 work week --by its very nature simply mean managements potential for discipline has been enhanced?

If we have MinnPost and a little more frequent Highland Villager, I don't see where the Pioneer Press serves any useful purpose.