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More from Star Tribune union leaders on the paper’s likely bankruptcy

Cost cutting wasn’t the issue, labor insists — it was how the pain was distributed.
By David Brauer

Go ahead, make our day.

That wasn’t what the Star Tribune’s newsroom union said to management at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday as negotiations ended, but the implication was clear. Last month, ownership said it would file for bankruptcy shortly after Jan. 16 unless all unions agreed to non-negotiable cuts.

Barring a sudden change of publisher Chris Harte, that threat has been called.

Newspaper Guild co-chair David Chanen says the main sticking point wasn’t $4 million or so of cost cutting, but how equitably the pain would be distributed.

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“We met their dollar savings — at least, we thought so,” he notes. “The issue was the structure of their proposal.”

Chanen said management’s offer — which included slashing night-side bonus wages, most merit pay and almost all overtime — spread the pain too unevenly. He adds that management (which didn’t return a call for comment) wanted the changes permanent. The Guild believed any givebacks should end when the three-year contract did.

“We’re hoping after that, the economy would be rosier,” he says.

To those who wonder why labor is holding out when the economy — and newspapers specifically — are tanking, Chanen says the union isn’t being obstructionist. Guild members agreed to $2.4 million in cuts just this summer, a 10 percent slice of the newsroom budget. “We’re under a pay freeze, and we’re now paying higher health care costs. We’ve just lost 25 people (in just-announced buyouts); that’s $2 million in savings there. And we signaled we were still willing to consider [other] cost-savings measures.”

Summer’s relatively fresh labor deal and this latest good-faith offer are set up to look good to a bankruptcy judge, who will probably hold labor’s fate in a few days.

Chanen acknowledges the substantial risk: Ownership “can come back with exactly the same proposal as a starting point. It’s different ground rules in court. We’ll just have to take our chances.”

One upside: labor — and the public — will finally see all of the privately held Star Tribune Co.’s books, and the paper’s dire financial straits can be openly navigated.

Chanen’s co-chair, Graydon Royce, believes the newsroom is prepared for Chapter 11; there’s a membership meeting Friday. Royce says he’s been “surprised” by non-firebrands who support going the distance. “All I can say is I’ve heard from a number of people, ‘If that’s the path we have to take, that’s the path we have to take.'”

Any chance negotiations will resume? “If they want to come back with a new proposal, we’re open to talking,” Chanen says, but as of Wednesday night, “they were not going to bend at all, no matter what we countered with. It was ‘Thanks for playing, end of story.'”

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His closing message? “We just want to stress how important the Star Tribune is to the community.”

[Note: You can read the memo Chanen and Royce sent to their membership here.]