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Inducing Labor

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Now comes the hard part: With the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and its unions having struck a tentative deal on a new labor contract, employees are weighing the terms of the deal. Some workers, meanwhile, are deciding whether they want to stick around at all.

In the paper's newsroom, employees of the Newspaper Guild are weighing a summary of the agreement, which was sent out last week and obtained by City Paper. Union officials and rank-and-file staffers have been wary of speaking on the record about the proposal. But while avoiding sweeping changes, the summary does erode some union protections, and suggests that readers may be seeing more bylines from freelance photographers and writers in the future.

As we first reported two weeks ago, base wages will remain unchanged for Guild employees, which include reporters, photographers and copy editors. That's not to say paychecks won't be smaller: Staff paper-wide will be expected to kick in an additional 5 percent toward their health insurance, to a maximum of $2,500 a year.

The contract also increases management prerogatives. Most notably, it makes changes to seniority, which requires that the last hired will be the first fired. Instead of ranking all newsroom employees on the same scale of years served, the new contract categorizes those employees in various "workgroups," which include such categories as local/business writers, sports writers and photographers/photo editors/artists. Management could move to terminate the most junior employees in a given workgroup, even if that employee had put in more years of service than a staffer in a different workgroup.

The measure is a compromise, allowing management more leeway in personnel decisions, but without dispensing with seniority provisions entirely.

Management has flexed its muscle in other ways. As the paper seeks to pare back its newsroom payroll costs, the percentage of work done by freelancers and non-union managers will increase; the budget for stringers, freelancers with regular writing gigs, will increase from 10 percent to 15 percent of the shrinking newsroom payroll.

It's not all bad news for P-G workers. Even as employees pay more for their insurance, for example, their deductible will be reduced.  And the memo notes that policies on vacation days and other time off remain unchanged.

Guild members are slated to vote on the proposal Sept. 2; members of the paper's other nine unions are taking separate votes of their own. (A vote by members of the Teamster's union took place Aug. 29, though results of that vote were not available by press time.) If the contracts are approved, they will be in effect through March 31, 2013.

Veteran staffers, meanwhile, have an additional choice of their own to make. Newsroom employees who have more than five years of service -- and whose ages and years of experience total 40 years or more -- are being offered buyouts. The offer -- which the union summary describes as being "designed to eliminate up to 30 Guild jobs" -- includes a half year of pay with one free year of health insurance, and the company's promise not to contest unemployment benefits.

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