Block Communications Inc., which owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has locked out five of the six unions working since March 21 without a contract at BCI's other paper, the Toledo Blade.
How concerned are the P-G's 1,100 workers? After all, contracts for the paper's 10 unions are up Dec. 31, opening the door to similar management measures here.
"Certainly, what happens there [at the Blade] has an effect on us, with our people getting pissed," says Mike Bucsko, head of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh Local 38061, which represents the paper's reporters, copy editors, photographers and artists. "The Blocks have generated so much ill will this year that it's going to be hard to recoup when they sit down again" to negotiate.
P-G contract negotiations, begun early this year, stalled quickly, with each side far from the other. But both sides agree that the BCI's daily newspaper business is not profitable at the moment.
Union reps say their proposal included financial givebacks ... what Teamsters Local 211 President Joe Molinero calls "major concessions" adding up to "millions." The unions re-opened their contracts voluntarily in 2004, forgoing a raise, agreeing to a new prescription co-pay as part of company health benefits and giving back vacation time.
But some BCI proposals this time, Molinero says, were "insane," including the possibility of outsourcing some traditional union work and allowing members of one union to perform work normally done by members of another.
BCI officials did not return a call for comment by press time.
P-G unions have already offered to reduce the number of staff required to do certain tasks ... the "manning" level ... in "every department ... without putting extra burdens on those who are left," Molinero says. But he cautions that management shouldn't do that unilaterally.
The P-G's unions have also been asked to sign a "no sympathy strike" clause as part of BCI's new contract offer, he reports. "They want us to cross the picket line if there's a strike" by another union. "That's insane to tell a union member to cross a picket line. We've told [BCI] we'd do everything to make you profitable. What does honoring a picket line have to do with economics?"
On Aug. 28, Blade Vice President and General Manager Joseph Zerbey told Editor & Publisher that his paper needed only about 60 temporary workers to replace the 200 locked-out union drivers, pressmen, typographers and advertising-insert handlers. Molinero believes there's no way those few people could handle every shift over a seven-day week.
Zerbey, contacted by City Paper, says that is indeed what is happening, with those 60 people "working across all shifts during the week." The Blade is "more effectively employing the people," he adds.
"We can replace the 200 with fewer" people, says Luann Sharp, Blade assistant managing editor, who is acting as spokesperson during contract negotiations. "But add to the mix that we are using management employees" to cover some jobs "and have been interviewing other candidates to maybe handle other part-time shifts, such as Saturday or Sunday."
Still, she says, "We are overstaffed in some of our craft unions."
Sharp says that a "no sympathy strike" clause has also been on the table in Toledo, as well as the possibility of outsourcing and allowing cross-union work.
How long will the lockouts of five Toledo unions last?
"The employees will be locked out until we do reach agreements," Sharp says.
Two other Toledo unions have current agreements with the Blade. That leaves the largest, the Toledo Newspaper Guild, still reporting to work without a contract. It has 350 full- and part-time employees handling news reporting as well as advertising, circulation, finance and some of the paper's information technology duties. Could the Blade function if its largest union is locked out as well?
"Yes, we could," says Sharp. "We do have support from ... a group of newspapers" who would provide replacement workers. She would not name the publishing chain involved.
The Toledo labor strife, says the P-G Guild's Bucsko, "is just steeling people's resolves to stand up with the unions. As one of my colleagues says, it's like we're working for a whole new employer. The Blocks never treated the unions this way" before the death of William Block Sr. in June 2005. "There's a reason people worked at the P-G all these years ... it was a good place to work. But they've destroyed all that."
Some staffers who have decided to leave during the labor negotiations won't comment on whether the changed atmosphere is motivation enough. Others deny it is a factor. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Martha Rial, for instance, says she is leaving in early October "for a much better opportunity at St. Petersburg Times in Florida ... I decided to leave long before contract talks got underway at the Blade."
Bucsko is still working on opportunities for his union here. "Our goals are mutual ... to have the P-G survive," he says. "But [BCI] want[s] everything ... not only financial concessions but they basically want to take our union's livelihood here." He continues to be disturbed by BCI's use of what he calls a "union-busting" law firm, Nashville's King & Ballow, in the negotiations.
"The Blocks wrongly took this bone-headed step [of lockouts] because they're listening to the lawyer from Tennessee," Bucsko says. "Now they're spending money on scabs, hotels. ... They decided to go down this road ... and it's a road to ruin."
Sharp doesn't believe the union busting characterization is accurate.
"A law firm does what its client tells it to do," she says.