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Race to the bottom: After Star Tribune bankruptcy, Pioneer Press owners seek wage cuts

Yesterday, I blogged about Pioneer Press business reporter Nicole Garrison-Sprenger bolting for a state job. Garrison-Sprenger’s announcement came one day after the PiPress Newspaper Guild announced ownership seeks $2 million in concessions, including 7 percent pay cuts plus a freeze that would hit low-seniority workers harder.

PiPress employees, including those in the newsroom, circulation and ad sales, have a contract through July 31, 2011. But amid the Ad Depression, that’s not sacred, at least to highly leveraged Denver-based owner MediaNews.

In May, MediaNews demanded $2 million in cuts by June 30. They later lowered that to $1.1 million, but ultimately imposed 10 layoffs to get the savings. The union, which never agreed to reopen the contract, was furious that bodies were tossed overboard when they were pushing for more broadly shared sacrifice.

Now, the unions get a second chance to share pain. For staffers and readers, there’s ample risk that a shrinking newsroom will get even smaller.

The PiPress remains in the black, according to a memo from PiPress newsroom leaders: “… the company says it’s making a small profit, but needs the savings to remain competitive.” PiPress management would not comment on discussions.

Though I have little doubt MediaNews would cut anyway, the Strib’s bankruptcy has provided management extra motivation. National Newspaper Guild president Bernie Lunzer says MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton said he would seek “parity” with the Strib after the Minneapolis paper leveraged bankruptcy for comp cuts.

The parity concept has some in the PiPress newsroom chuckling ruefully. That’s because in many areas, they already make less than their bigger-paper counterparts.

For example, a top-scale, post-bankruptcy Strib reporter makes $1,303 a week in base pay; PiPressers stand at $1,290. If the 7 percent is applied to that, weekly pay falls to $1,200, or about $62,400 a year. Lower-seniority workers such as Garrison-Sprenger make from the mid-30s to high-40s. [Garrison-Sprenger says though she is low on seniority, she received payscale credit for a previous job and wasn’t lower-paid.]

Similarly, while Strib folks lost 30 percent of their merit pay, few PiPressers get any at all, and the proposal would eliminate the last $295,000.

Some proposed cuts mirror Strib concessions. For example, MediaNews wants to eliminate higher night pay, saving $448,000, according to a Guild memo. Top-scale night workers would face a double whammy with the base-pay cut, losing around $180 a week or $9,300 a year.

PiPressers do still get some compensation Stribbers don’t. MediaNews would eliminate a 401(k) match, saving $350,000. And while Strib paychecks lightened this summer, St. Paul Guild workers actually got a 2 percent raise July 1; another is scheduled for July 2010. Elimination of that, plus the wage cut and pay freeze, saves MediaNews $1.285 million.

Reporter Dave Orrick, a Guild spokesman, says for many members, taking that summer raise “left a bitter taste” after management cut colleagues rather than keep talking concessions. (I should note some Guild members felt their leadership let things drag too close to the June deadline; Guild reps insist ownership belatedly changed its tune about being open to such negotiating.)

Orrick says Guild leaders plan to hold a membership meeting next week. If workers agree, negotiations will continue commence. If not, management retains the contractual right to impose layoffs.

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