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A hopeful sign for the Pioneer Press

Despite speculation here and elsewhere that an expiring pressman’s contract may be just the excuse PiPress ownership needs to combine production operations with the Star Tribune, a union leader says that’s “never been put on the table.”

I’ve been pretty negative about the St. Paul paper’s prospects in recent days, especially after news broke that the Pioneer Press is their bankrupt chain’s only money loser.

That’s prompted speculation here and elsewhere that if owner MediaNews didn’t sell to, or buy, the Star Tribune, they’d at least try to combine production operations — especially with the St. Paul pressmen’s contract expiring March 31.

You’d think if anyone was feeling the consolidation wind, it would be Joe Crotty, the president of St. Paul pressman’s Teamsters local. However, Crotty says MediaNews and PiPress officials have “never put on the table” shuttering St. Paul’s presses.

“They’ve told me in a lot of ways, they like the independence of their production facility,” says Crotty, who had preliminary discussions in December and faces a bargaining session today. “They say if they move to Minneapolis and the Star Tribune goes down, we go down with them.”

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Crotty says St. Paul couldn’t realistically print both papers, so the only possible joint operation would be in Minneapolis. During the Strib’s 2009 bankruptcy, their pressmen agreed to concessions that lowered the cost of new outside jobs.

Still, PiPress management seems content to use Strib concessions to drive down St. Paul wages. Says Crotty, “In their one brief talk with me, they say they are in at competitive disadvantage with Minneapolis, so we still have to fight over job guarantees and pay.”

Thanks to previous contracts, several St. Paul pressmen have lifetime job guarantees. That means as long as a PiPress is printed, those workers have to be paid — which lessens some of consolidation’s upside.

While a renegotiated contract wouldn’t prevent MediaNews from selling out and walking away, Crotty says he is entering negotiations with “an open mind,” and thinks the pressmen and management “have the same goal — keep the Pioneer Press as a separate entity, get profitable and hope this restructuring sets us in the right direction.”