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Pioneer Press owners end concession discussions; are newsroom layoffs inevitable?

Things could get very bad in the Pioneer Press newsroom very soon.

On Friday, the Newspaper Guild union told members it had canceled a planned June 30 vote on reopening contract negotiations. The vote provided some hope that PiPress owner MediaNews Group could get $1.1 million in savings without laying off 15-20 people in a 138-person newsroom already scrambling to cover east-metro news.

Depending on the acquiescence of its members, the Guild seemed open to discussing alternatives such pay freezes, furloughs, eliminating night pay and abolishing 401(k) matches.

However, Friday’s Guild memo indicated the company no longer wanted to discuss contract changes due to changing economic conditions. MediaNews — whose fiscal year ends Tuesday — probably didn’t come into a whole lot of money. While there’s long been more than a whiff of bankruptcy around the company, there’s no news from MediaNews’ bigger markets that Chapter 11 is in the offing.

Even though tomorrow’s Guild vote has been scheduled since June 12, something must’ve happened last Thursday, because the union held a round of early absentee voting Wednesday.

PiPress reporter Dave Orrick, a Newspaper Guild spokesman, says, “We have no comment right now. The Guild is still following an agreement with management not to talk about the situation.”

However, indicating a crisis may soon come to a head, Orrick adds, “I don’t know if that’s going to change today or not.”

[Update: Late Monday afternoon, Orrick said there had been no change.]

Pioneer Press management did not return requests for comment, and editor Thom Fladung — who returned from vacation that fateful Thursday — says “I’m not in a position where I can comment on anything.”

Fladung, who is also a Pioneer Press vice president, is held in high regard as a guy who has tried to forestall the body count. One newsroom source says participants in a high-level editors’ meeting Friday emerged ashen-faced.

Ironically, MediaNews could lay off people today or tomorrow and then give survivors a contractually obligated 2 percent raise Wednesday. Guild members could well be willing to give that pay hike up to save jobs and help ownership meet its savings demand. However, if management refuses to negotiate, such shared sacrifice can’t happen, which means badly needed newsgatherers will disappear needlessly.

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