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End of Pioneer Press no-layoff era … but more celebrity coverage?

Proposed labor deal will give management — and new owners — greater power to control staff size.

Pioneer Press front pagePioneer Press union workers vote Thursday on Digital First’s first full-fledged contract. The deal hints at west-metro expansion, but also finances still dour enough for a wage freeze and an end to no-layoff protection.

Since 2010, the PiPress Newspaper Guild has given management discretion to cut pay, via furlough days. In return, there’s job-cut protection for reporters, lower-level editors, photographers, copy editors and other newsroom and non-newsroom staff.

The PiPress has shrunk in recent years. Management doesn’t have to fill vacancies, and with union layoffs blocked, cut the ranks of non-Guild-protected editor/managers. But if Guild members vote aye today, management can cull throughout staff ranks.

Will they? The union’s deal memo specifies management can cut three ad designers between now and October. Guild spokesman Dave Orrick says managers “have not told us” about any other cuts; publisher Guy Gilmore and editor Mike Burbach did not respond to an email for comment.

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The PiPress flat-out stopped filling vacancies after the economy crashed, but in the last year or two has resumed hiring. Most recently, Dakota County education reporter Chris Magan came on board, and C.J. Sinner will soon join as a multimedia web producer. (Given the layoff provision, their fingers should be crossed.) But other positions, such as business reporter Gita Sitaramiah’s, have gone dark (update: maybe not – see comments), indicating subtler cost-cutting than via pink slip.

‘Celebrity and traffic news’

One of the more intriguing deal points is a clause permitting “independent contractors to provide celebrity and traffic news from the West Metro.”

Managers, before going mute, expressed interest in making a metro-wide destination, even as the paper remains focused on Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties, plus St. Croix and Pierce in western Wisconsin.

Despite the shrunken staff, Digital First devotees argue that much existing coverage should appeal beyond the east metro: State politics, sports, business. Apparently a C.J.-like substance is to be added to the mix.

To limit freelance use, management must “match in payment to the Guild any freelance expenditures that exceed 17 percent of the annual Guild editorial department budget,” according to the union memo. And much existing core-county work is protected from freelance.

In another nod to modernity, the contract acknowledges reporters will now photograph and shoot video, while visual journalists can write stories. Notes Orrick, “They key protection is a reporter cannot be disciplined if he or she takes a mediocre photo while scribbling into a notebook page.”

Guild members will have to swallow hard to nix their layoff protection and accept a wage freeze through Jan. 31, 2014, after a nearly 10 percent comp cut in the 2010 deal.

The new proposal does end the paycheck-cutting furlough days; Orrick says up to five have been imposed some years. Getting a week’s pay back would amount to 2 percent comp increase, though I’d hardly call it a raise. The deal continues the 37.5-hour workweek, a tacit 2010.

The union also got a baby carrot: the online ad staff now has the option of joining. (The Guild represents many PiPress workers beyond the newsroom.)

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One sign of how tough the deal is on workers: Guild negotiators had to argue in an email that it could have been worse:

“[Y]our Guild Bargaining Committee managed to fight back the most onerous management proposals — elimination of seniority as the sole basis for layoffs, a 30 percent reduction in severance, overtime only after 40 hours, elimination of night differential, a 45 percent reduction in mileage reimbursement, a two-tier wage system and a dramatic increase in health insurance that would have cost members thousands of dollars more per year.”