Strib labor talks: Thursday, to the mattresses?

Star Tribune management and newsroom employees have dickered for months over a new contract, but now bosses have told labor if a deal isn’t done by Wednesday, they’ll institute a more adversarial approach.

Ownership wants a 10 percent newsroom budget cut, but rejected a union proposal Friday. Management gave the union a “hard” deadline: submit an agreed-upon proposal to members by tomorrow, or a mediator-facilitated discussion will give way to “traditional” adversarial bargaining, confirms Newspaper Guild co-chair Graydon Royce.

What’s that mean? Lawyers, not senior newsroom managers, step in. Royce says he assumes talks would be “different,” but a knowledgable source not authorized to comment explains further:

“They bring in a new negotiating team. [It’s] not as user-friendly, where there’s a candid, free-flowing discussion, [without] the sort of gamesmanship where you never tip your hand. With ‘interest-based’ bargaining, the list of issues is more defined; with traditional bargaining, it’s ‘pick every contract provision apart,’ and you don’t show your hand.”

In The Godfather’s immortal words, both sides “go to the mattresses.” And that could delay a deal that labor has felt was reasonably close.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that the Guild had proposed a wage freeze of unspecified duration, plus some layoff protection. That would’ve preserved newsgathering jobs — the public’s interest here. However, management wanted a contract reopener if a multi-union council failed to limit healthcare costs. Newsroom troops balked at that. Neither Royce or the unnamed source will detail the latest dealbreakers.

So how does this new deadline affect readers? For now, probably not at all.

Though the existing deal expires in two weeks, it contains an clause extending current terms as long as both sides bargain in good faith. Should management break off talks unilaterally, the union can go to the National Labor Relations Board to force management back to the table — though what the Bush-appointed body would do is uncertain.

Management, which was not available for comment, could put the layoff hammer down, though that’s a power they’ve always had.

Asked if the Strib’s financial deterioration has worsened, prompting the new deadline, Royce says, “No, there’s been no explanation in that regard. My sense is that they feel the [mediation] process has played itself out.”

However, he adds, “There’s still financial pressure on the company which will not change if the [negotiating] process changes. Everyone would agree that the current [financial] state of the Star Tribune is a house of cards right now. Even [Strib publisher] Chris Harte would agree right now.”

Management has presented — and failed to enforce — many deadlines during negotiations, but Royce says, “This is different. The previous deadlines dealt with certain bank issues we don’t understand all the nuances of. This is an internal decision they can make — it doesn’t require anyone’s say-so. It’s their process; they control that.”

Last week, City Pages reported that Harte had given several non-newsroom unions a July 3 deadline for a mediated deal. At the time, Harte wrote in a memo that “negotiations had stopped.”

However, on July 8, Bob Moore, business agent for the paper’s mailers, told me, “We’re still in negotiations.” He said the union’s international is “involved at this point,” but wouldn’t specify if that meant a switchover to traditional/adversarial negotiations.

As for the newsroom, Royce says that the Guild will probably decide right before tomorrow’s drop-dead point whether to make one last mediation proposal. Guild leadership is meeting this afternoon to strategize.

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