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Pioneer Press pressman: No moving to Minneapolis without us

The Minneapolis and St. Paul papers have talked about combining printing operations, but St. Paul’s publisher says he hasn’t been involved in negotiations for a joint operating agreement.
By David Brauer

According to a Wednesday Star Tribune story, Pioneer Press publisher Guy Gilmore disclosed “exploratory” discussions about moving his printing operations to Minneapolis and “said his paper’s contract with its pressmen would permit such an arrangement.”

“Nice contract there, fellas,” I later quipped.

No one has talked to the PiPress pressmen, but union leader Joe Crotty says his local’s contract is anything but Swiss cheese: “We negotiated a deal in December that runs through March 31, 2010. Right now, we have 30 members, and we consider them all guaranteed through then. Twenty-eight have their names in the contract.”

The printers still operate under a deal that promises them lifetime employment, a legacy of technological upheaval in the ’80s. Jobs are shed through attrition (the youngest St. Paul pressmen is in his forties) or bargaining (four members accepted buyouts in December). While bankruptcy can change everything, PiPress owner MediaNews isn’t there quite yet.

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Short of a judge tossing out their labor deal, the pressmen insist any Minneapolis move has to go through them.

I asked Crotty if the prospect of joint printing came up during December’s negotiations. “The issue of working on a joint operating agreement-type venture with the Strib was discussed.”

My ears perked up. “JOA” is a media-business term pregnant with meaning.

Basically, if two papers pass federal anti-trust review (likely given revenue plunges), they can combine everything but their newsrooms. Assuming both local dailes stay afloat, neither has the cash to buy the other out. So combining printing, administration, advertising, etc. could be most comprehensive way to save dough, even if that many more newspaper workers hit the bricks.

But JOAs aren’t expanding in America, they’re dying. Denver and Seattle are just two of the places where joint agreements dissolved because the weaker paper died. In the Twin Cities, no one’s quite sure if there even is a stronger paper. Would the PiPress want to be tied to the Strib’s Chapter 11 anchor? And conversely, if the Strib gets out of bankruptcy, would it bet on debt-plagued MediaNews avoiding the same fate?

Gilmore wouldn’t discuss labor matters, but when I asked about the JOA, he stated: “I haven’t been involved in any JOA conversations.”

Crotty says whatever was afoot in December didn’t seem imminent. “They made it sound like it was very up in the air. It would take months for it to take place, and they’d have to have new negotiations with all the unions involved.”

The fact is the two papers can find ways to save money short of a formal JOA. Recently, PiPress drivers started delivering Stribs on several east-metro routes. And papers around the country have signed joint printing agreements without getting federal approval.

Strib operations vice-president Kevin Desmond testified Wednesday that if he got his labor costs low enough, his paper could bid for jobs including the PiPress. We don’t yet know what protections Strib pressmen negotiated away Friday morning, and whether Minneapolis management obtained the freedom to accomodate contract-protected PiPress workers. As for the St. Paulites, even if they’re right about their ironclad guarantees, they know their deal expires in just 12 short months.