With its labor contracts winding down next spring, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is signaling that it will seek painful concessions from employees. And if that makes employees queasy, they might have to get sick on their own time: The paper may seek to eliminate all paid sick leave.
Ten different unions represent P-G employees, including those in its newsroom, printing plant and delivery fleet. Their contracts expire at the end of March, with formal talks on a new contract slated to begin Jan. 31. But the company has already shared an outline of its initial proposal with union negotiators. In a memo to members of the Newspaper Guild -- which represents reporters, copy editors and other newsroom staff -- Local 38061 president R.J. Hufnagel wrote that the outline includes "the most regressive proposals we have ever seen."
It was "an outright insult to all of us as trained professionals," he added. "And that's putting things kindly."
According to Hufnagel's memo, and sources with knowledge of the situation, the proposal includes the following:
- A pay cut of 25 percent in the first year, followed by another 10 percent in year two. For a staffer with five or more years of experience, that would mean a total pay cut of nearly $20,000 a year, to $41,150 in gross pay.
- Elimination of all sick days, as well as personal days and similar benefits. Employees currently get eight sick days, and up to five personal days.
- Increased employee contributions to health-insurance premiums.
Of course, it's not unusual for bargaining to begin with both sides staking out extreme positions. Hufnagel's memo reminded employees, "this is just an outline, not an official proposal." He also noted that as long as negotiations continue, the existing contract provisions will remain in effect, even after it expires March 31.
In fact, union officials and company executives already agree on one aspect of the talks: They don't want to speak publicly about them.
"We've jointly decided with the union not to negotiate in the media," Post-Gazette President Chris Chamberlain says. Hufnagel similarly declined comment, as did Joe Molinero, president of the Teamsters union that represents pressmen and delivery-truck drivers.
"We're not ready to make a statement yet; we have to digest what they gave us," Molinero says. Beyond cautioning against giving too much credence to rumors -- "You're going to hear a lot of things out there" -- he declined to comment on the company proposal, except to say, "It's very aggressive."
Rank-and-file employees contacted by City Paper were also wary of speaking on the record. But adding to their fears, several say, is the fact that in early November, the paper announced tougher policies toward editors and other non-union managerial staff.
The paper has made a buyout offer to those employees, roughly 150 of whom qualify. Chamberlain says the paper hopes 10 percent of eligible employees will accept the offer by Dec. 21. If the number is less than that, layoffs are possible.
Nor will those who remain on staff be spared the pain. Chamberlain confirms that managerial staff will have to take two weeks of unpaid furlough in the first nine months of 2010. They will also forfeit any vacation they have over four weeks.
These changes don't affect union employees -- yet. But there is concern that the paper will demand similar concessions from union workers.
The cuts are happening amidst an economic slowdown that has crimped advertising budgets, as well as a continuing trend of readers moving online. The P-G has tried various solutions to those problems. It has scaled back delivery to outlying areas, and this summer it launched PG+, a premium-content site that costs subscribers $3-4 a month. The site "is working well," Chamberlain says, with the number of subscribers "in the four-digit range." Overall, the advertising climate is "showing some signs of improvement."
Still, Chamberlain acknowledges, "Like everybody else, we've had a tough year." And 2010 isn't shaping up to be any easier.