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Don't Stop the Presses, Post-Gazette employees ask

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters normally cover the news, but on Dec. 11 they tried to become the story.

Unable yet to ratify a new union contract with the paper's owners, Toledo-based Block Communications, members of 14 individual bargaining units, led by the reporters' Newspaper Guild, took to the streets outside the paper's Downtown headquarters. Their contracts expire Dec. 31.

While union members would reveal few details of the negotiations, they stressed that the public should take a keen interest in a resolution. Contract talks, they say, affect the public's access to news, not just P-G employees' ability to draw a paycheck.

The demonstration was one of a series of events staged by newspaper unions around the country. Nationwide, some 34,000 newspaper employees have been laid off in the past five years, says the Communications Workers of America.

Some staffers at the Pittsburgh gathering said that in recent weeks, they had grown cautiously optimistic about the progress of negotiations. "The fact that we've started talking," says columnist Tony Norman, "is the best sign that the company is serious about resolving this." Still, the Guild also aimed a Scrooge-themed commercial at P-G management via WWSW-FM's all-Christmas music format the same day.

The paper has laid off 40 newsroom staffers in the past five years and 15 this year alone, P-G columnist Brian O'Neill warned at the protest. The deepest cut was the closing of the paper's Washington, D.C. bureau, leaving one union employee to "cover the nation's capital with a Pittsburgh perspective," O'Neill complained.

"The end result is the people of Pittsburgh have fewer watchdogs looking out for them," O'Neill said. "Fewer people are covering your community, your school board, your local hospital, your government and your favorite teams.

"We're very flexible and ready to talk," he added, "but we will stop short of giving up rights we've worked for since the 1930s."

Although few specifics were discussed by union reps during the protest, the company is looking for several concessions from its 1,100 P-G employees -- reductions to wages, benefits and staffing among them.

But the main sticking point is probably a management request to strike long-standing contract protections -- to allow the outsourcing of union work and re-shuffling of employees to different jobs. When asked how unions responded to the company's attempt to void the current contract's work rules, O'Neill received cheers for reiterating: "The response was no."

Tracey DeAngelo, P-G marketing director and spokesperson, said the company will lose $20 million this year, and has not made a profit since 2002. In an additional prepared statement, DeAngelo said: "We understand the concerns addressed at today's rally. But we know the best way to preserve jobs in the long run is to address the financial issues at the Post-Gazette."

The Blocks are no strangers to contentious negotiations. At the Block-owned Toledo Blade, union workers have been without a contract for most of the year. Health benefits were temporarily suspended for Guild-represented employees until they agreed to pay more for coverage, according to the Toledo Newspaper Guild. Several unions have been locked out and their workers replaced. The Toledo Guild has been calling for an advertiser and subscriber boycott.

The Blocks have threatened to sell the Post-Gazette if a deal is not in place by Dec. 31. Union representatives anticipate returning to the table this week.

"We are definitely preparing to ramp up negotiations," said Mike Bucsko, the Guild's union representative. "As for how serious they are about selling the paper, we'll see come Dec. 31 if an agreement's not in place."

- (Chris Potter contributed reporting to this story)

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