Strib contract ‘NO’ voters speak; are union fissures deep?

Tomorrow, Star Tribune newsroom employees will vote on a tentative three-year deal cutting newsroom costs $2.4 million, or 10 percent a year. Although the Newspaper Guild leadership recommends passage, yesterday, three reporters handed out a leaflet urging their colleagues to vote no.

Minneapolis reporter Steve Brandt, one of the document’s three signers, isn’t optimistic his side will prevail. “I’ve never known a bargaining committee recommendation to win with less than 65 percent support from members,” he says.

Still, the objections of Brandt and colleagues Randy Furst and Chris Serres are acid, and has left Guild co-chair and contract negotiator Graydon Royce with admitted hard feelings.

You can read the memo below, but fundamentally, the “Rank and File Committee” asserts:

• Veteran employees will take a 19 percent real-wage cut over the deal’s life, and lower-paid workers will be sliced 28 percent. This is based on a wage freeze, subsequent below-inflation hikes, and higher healthcare costs — the latter hitting families and those with illness histories especially hard.

Royce says the dissenters are misrepresenting a worst-case as a typical case.

• A minority apprenticeship program amounts to an “indentured servant class” that will “segregate” nonwhite journalists into a group that could be laid off “even if they have more seniority than white employees who were hired after them.”

The characterization is the flashpoint for Royce, who says terms like “indentured servant” and “segregate” consciously “distorts” the program. He says he has hard feelings “mostly because of the way they characterized the apprenticeship program in a way that challenges the integrity of the negotiating committee. They’re saying ‘Look at what these people agreed to!’ It isn’t at all what we agreed to.”

Royce argues the apprenticeship program isn’t comparable to a staff job; it’s more like “a super-internship, a two-year program not intended to go beyond that.”

He adds that less-senior non-apprentices whose jobs would be saved first could be white or nonwhite.

Furst, who, like all the Rank and File Committee signees, is white, seems to acknowledge the point’s explosiveness. “Our group is not speaking for minorities on the staff. Some people agree with what we have to say … and some took issue with [our] formulation,” he says.

Furst and Brandt state they have no animus toward Guild negotiators, who they believe were under a great deal of pressure from Avista.

That said, the duo believes Guild leadership didn’t make life hellish enough for management during negotiations. Former Guild vice-chairs, they sketch what to this non-union guy seems an attractive but outdated vision of solidarity. Then again, the duo helped hammer out the incredibly strong deals Strib management has lived with and frequently rued.

Says Furst, “What we need is unions to stand together in the plant, and get support from the labor community, hundreds of thousands of members and a number of people [in the community] sympathetic to the issues here. The Guild is part of the Communications Workers of America, which has developed some really potent strategies, contract campaigns.”

Adds Brandt, “I feel we settled with a lot of arrows in our quiver. Back in 1989, we had the membership so keyed up during negotiations that frankly, it was huge distraction to getting the newspaper out. We rented a trailer, parked it across the street, and labeled it ‘Strike Headquarters.’ I think managers react when they see people in knots around the newsroom, discussing the contract instead of doing work. There’s a cost to be paid for trying to inflict a bad contract on the newsroom.”

But those were the Cowles days, with local people who had a definable community spirit. Even Furst paints Strib owner Avista Capital Partners as out-of-town, union-loathing sharks who want to “strip” the company and flip a cost-reduced asset to the next buyer.

Still, Furst notes that the Strib is still making double-digit operating profits (though not enough for hefty debt payments) and might not want to bear a job action’s short-term cost and potential asset destruction.

A major Rank and File Committee hurdle is Guild members who’ll vote “yes” to lock in terms before a possible Strib bankruptcy. Recently negotiated deals are less likely to be thrown out in bankruptcy court than old agreements cut while times were fat.

Furst argues that no Avista deal is safe, noting ongoing renegotiations with unions whose contracts aren’t expiring.

Here’s the Rank-and-Filers’ memo:

A VERY BAD DEAL

•    A double digit pay cut for members, factoring in inflation and health care increases

•    Hardest hit will be lower paid employees

•    Health plan will penalize families and those unfortunate enough to be sick

•    Creation of “indentured servant class” of minority journalists

•    No sacrifices by management
 
Five reasons to VOTE NO:

1. Loss of earning power: At the current inflation rate of4.5 percent, factoring in the 16-month pay freeze and miniscule pay increases, a 6-year A-scale employee’s real wages will have fallen $123 per week, or $6,400 a year by the end of the three-year contract. Worse still, a family could be on the hook for $7,000 a year in medical expenses for a total pay cut of $13,400, an 18.6 percent cut in real wages (or purchasing power).

2. Lower paid employees will take the biggest hit: For example, a news assistant at top scale will earn $114 less per week in real wages, a $5,934 annual pay cut in the third year of the contract, factoring in inflation and the small pay raises. Add to this medical expenses for families of up to $7,000 a year, it comes to a $12,932 reduction, a 28 percent pay cut. This is a very steep pay cut.

3. Creation of an “indentured servant class” of minority journalists: The company’s proposed 2-year apprenticeship program will segregate incoming minority journalists to a lower class. At the end of the two years they can be terminated. While a new, young white person who is hired will progress to higher pay each year under the contract, minority journalists working alongside him face termination after 2 years. In the event of layoffs, the minorities will be the first to go, even if they have more seniority than white employees who were hired after them. We believe the best way to promote diversity is to hire and retain people of color, period.

4. A more expensive health insurance plan that discriminates against families and the sick: Health insurance is the most important benefit for us and our families. The company’s proposal shifts our part of the bill from 26 to 32 percent. It penalizes those of us who have had the bad luck to be sick or have an accident. Members could face medical bills of up to $7,000 each year. The proposal is anti-family because it forces working spouses to buy single coverage through their employers. That increases the paperwork difficulties, and forces the family to pay two premiums.

5. Weakened job security: Currently A-scale employees, including reporters, copy editors, photographers and graphic designers are all in the same pool. Under the agreement they will be grouped in separate categories in the event of layoffs. This makes it easier for the company to target people by job title, making it more likely that layoffs will occur.
           
WHY A ‘NO’ VOTE WILL HELP OUR UNION:. There is no guarantee the company will not come after us again during the life of the contract for additional concessions. In fact, Avista has already shown that it is prepared to open up the contracts of other unions that do not expire for years. By voting “No,” we send a powerful message to the company that we will not cave in to Avista’s anti-union program. In addition, we should do what CWA unions around the country have done when under attack, and that is build a public contract campaign, exposing the company’s hostility towards its workers, especially low paid and minority employees. By uniting with the rest of the labor movement and community groups and leaders, many labor unions have won significant victories. We should not give in without a fight.

Vote NO

RANK AND FILE COMMITTEE: Steve Brandt, Randy Furst, Chris Serres, co-chairs

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