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Despite debt default, Strib labor talks might preserve newsroom

The Strib just missed a debt payment, and there’s no newsroom labor deal, but one negotiator says there’s hope that the head count can be preserved.
By David Brauer

For me, reporting on the Strib’s financial condition always comes down to one thing: keeping the state’s largest cadre of talented journalists employed. While they aren’t above criticism, their critical mass is irreplaceable.

On the surface, yesterday’s debt-default news seems like another body blow, but I’m here with positive news, for readers at least. Even as finances deteriorate, the Strib’s ongoing newsroom labor negotiations offer surprising hope.

Regular readers know Strib publisher Chris Harte mandated a 10 percent, $2.5 million newsroom cut several weeks ago as the July 31 contract expiration loomed. The deal isn’t done, but I’m told contract negotiators have all but met that figure – without layoffs, and only a few buyouts.

In fact, the Newspaper Guild could get layoff protection, something their peers in St. Paul earned last year, when industry finances were better.

Says Strib Guild co-chair David Chanen, “Layoff protection has been discussed and is still being negotiated. Management has made it clear they don’t want any layoffs and layoffs won’t be part of the equation.”

A few buyouts
The union has sought a small number of buyouts, which management has resisted because they cost more up front. (Speaking for the bosses, Strib managing editor Rene Sanchez says he can’t comment ongoing talks.) However, Chanen says buyouts are in the proto-deal.

The price for those remaining on board: a wage freeze. Chanen didn’t specify the length, but calls it a “significant” part of the cost-savings package.

I haven’t had time to broadly survey the troops about how they feel, but assuming they’re on board, I’m grateful. They might’ve wheedled small raises, but that would mean fewer newsgatherers. Instead, they’ll maximize employment even as inflation erodes their purchasing power for months or more likely, years.

It’s far from an optimal scenario — new reporters’ salaries don’t make beginning teachers envious, so one wonders how many can hang around with no raises in sight. [Update: I’m reminded they’ll probably get “step” increases as they add years of service, though each step will be frozen.] And while Strib vets make more than most scribes, most similarly experienced professional wouldn’t trade industries.

If you take a step back, it’s somewhat mindboggling that Strib newsroom could, even temporarily, escape a major whack.

True, the Strib has lost 80 of 380 newsroom jobs since 2006, but papers that have expierenced similar cuts are facing decidedly worse futures. The Hartford Courant, for example, will soon lose 25 percent of its newsroom.

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Bankruptcy do-over?
Of course, there’s justifiable paranoia that Strib management will sign a relatively benign deal (emphasis on relatively) only to renege in bankruptcy court.

Last month, I spoke to a prominent local bankruptcy lawyer about this. While he works mostly in the transportation industry governed by laws not applicable to the media sector, he said it’s much harder for management to abrogate a recently bargained deal, even if outstanding issues remain.

The lawyer explained that management can more easily ask a judge to throw out an older collectively bargained deal — say, the Strib’s current five-year-old contract — citing dramatic economic changes.

However, this summer’s bargaining produced more recent proposals that account for revenue slumps and post-purchase debt. Therefore, there’s a greater chance a judge could hold Strib management to at least its latest proposal — and possibly even the compromises labor has agreed to.

Chanen says this is roughly his understanding, too. He added that the Strib’s missed debt payment didn’t blow a hole in negotiations because management has been clear about debt restructuring throughout the talks.

Obstacles remain

There are still pitfalls on the way to a newsroom-preserving agreement. The New York money boys could demand a bigger labor haircut, or revenue could fall through the floor, not just off the table.

Interestingly, health care — often the major issue in modern labor negotiations — is not part of the current talks, or Harte’s $2.5 million newsroom cut. The issue will be bargained this fall, with a multi-union council of all Strib locals.

However, last month, management asked the Guild for a “reopener” clause in any new deal, if the Strib-wide health negotiations founder. Guild troops understandably want their specific deal locked down, and don’t want a divided labor house when health care comes up.

For now, this remains a significant sticking point, but Chanen emphasizes, “we’re still willing to be at the table” and get a reasonable deal done.