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Star Tribune newsroom votes on extending labor deal, pay freeze

This morning, Star Tribune business columnist Eric Wieffering lacerated American Crystal Sugar for locking out workers after “insisting on seniority language that it knew the union would never accept.”

Ironically, there are echoes at Wieffering’s own shop, where newsroom Newspaper Guild workers are voting to extend for 18 months a contract that expired Sunday.

Unlike Crystal Sugar, both sides have pulled back from the brink. Management has dropped rules the union claims would further gut seniority and buttress a two-tiered wage scale. The union gave up a proposed three-year, 10 percent wage hike.

Voting on the tentative agreement takes place Thursday, and passage seems likely.

These are the first big negotiations since the Strib exited bankruptcy, and provide at least a cracked mirror into the state of the paper’s financial health and its future staffing.

Management has spoken bullishly about the organization’s return to sustainability, although word leaked out in March that first-quarter revenues were already tracking below 2011’s budget.

Strib CEO Mike Klingensmith describes the proposed deal and the financial landscape this way: “An extension preserves the status quo and allows us all to monitor how our revenues unfold over an additional period of time in this uncertain economic climate and time of media transition.”

Unlike union colleagues at the Pioneer Press, who have layoff protection through the end of the year, no such provision is in the current contract, or the extended one, Guild co-chair Janet Moore confirms. There was no discussion of imminent layoffs during negotiations.

Management and the Guild signed a non-disclosure agreement regarding the Strib’s second-quarter finances.

Workers — who received profit-sharing checks last year — felt bullish enough two weeks ago to ask for the salary boost, health care improvements, plus fully restored 401(k) matches. This after taking haircuts of up to 14 percent in 2009’s bankruptcy.

Management responded with a two-year wage freeze and 3 percent increase in August 2013, Guild negotiators told their members.

The 18-month extension effectively represents a freeze, albeit shorter-term.

Labor can point to dropped work rule changes, including one it says would “gut the seniority protections” by allowing layoffs based on management-judged “competency, efficiency, skills, ability, previous job performance, seniority, attendance record, training and other qualifications they consider ‘relevant.’”

Management had already won more power to bypass seniority in the 2009 givebacks, though only in limited cases.

The extension also mothballs plans to further reduce the classification (and pay) of some designers, as well as creating a 10-person tier of lower-paid suburban reporters, the union says.

Guild members have argued that stagnant comp will accelerate staff defections.

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