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Star Tribune newsroom deal: What ‘painful, distasteful’ cuts hint about future

Strib designers and layout editors will absorb deeper cuts, while management gets enhanced power to protect favorite workers and job classifications.
By David Brauer

Friday morning’s tentative deal between Star Tribune management and the Newspaper Guild doesn’t tell us how big the newsroom will be next week, next month, or next year. But it does give hints of who will be in it. And it’s probably better to be an editor or reporter than a page designer or copy editor.

The cuts are largely across the board: everyone gets a 3 percent wage cut, a pension freeze, two furlough days a year, and a 30 percent merit-pay reduction (though more on that in a sec). However, while the Guild memo referenced “painful and distasteful” cuts, it did not mention that designers, layout editors and perhaps copy editors face an additional 5 percent hit.

Why would they be targeted? Maybe it’s management’s way of saying the folks who make pages look good, especially on the print side, are the buggy-whip workers of the 21st Century.

An alternative perspective: The proposed contract knocks the design team from a higher pay scale to one inhabited by reporters and photographers, who earn $37,100-$69,900 in the current contract. So perhaps there’s an equity argument there — one that nevertheless could well generate a node of “no” votes in next week’s secret balloting.

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On a macro scale, management gets expanded power to shape the Strib’s staff going forward, thanks to a provision creating seniority exemptions for newer workers.

Management’s power has steadily increased. The Guild’s current contract — only seven months old — created more job-classification “silos” for management to cut from. In January’s layoffs, they hit categories such as copy editors while bypassing reporters.

Still, managers might have limited a category’s cut out of fear that a low-seniority “star” would be swept up. Now, they can simply use the exemption.

Solidarity will certainly take a hit the first time editors skip over a newcomer to nail a veteran. Everyone will know the favorite’s name; the Strib’s seniority list is available to members.

Of course, management would argue this a long-overdue way to protect the best new blood, limit damage to future-ready job classifications, and even lure new talent with promised exemptions. (Of course, that only works as long as the bosses like you!)

The merit pay provision will also test any “share-the-pain” ethos. The deal mandates a flat 30 percent cut for all “overscale” pay, which amounts to another $5,000 to $10,000 for many newsroom workers. However, editors have a discretionary fund to restore the cuts — for some.

By its very nature, merit pay is unbalanced. However, contract provisions have limited reductions for workers fall out of favor — a longtime management gripe. Now, if your merit pay doesn’t bounce back, you can be pretty sure you’re on the outs. To be sure, vets who’ve received less-prestigious assignments already know that, but future paychecks will add exclamation points.

Will that be the final cut that prompts targeted long-timers to quit? Seems unlikely, given all the recent buyout opportunities at terms more generous than the proposed deal. And believe me, everyone at 425 Portland knows we live in a world where alternative employment prospects are grim.

Guild negotiators did succeed in bargaining down the overall dollar value of the cuts, from a proposed $1.9 million annually to $1.7 million (excluding a pension freeze). Of course, there’s nothing in the deal preventing management from making up the difference — or more — via buyouts, then layoffs.

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An unspecified (but significant) expansion of freelance could well magnify future job cuts, while a provision requiring 33 weeks of severance for the most senior workers does limit immediate cost-savings. [Update: Guild leadership sent out a correction Friday: severance tops out at 30 weeks.]