Pittsburgh Post-Gazette union leaders say their talks with owner Block Communications are off ... and that the company is trying to get rid of the newspaper's 10 unions.
The talks, set for February, "never even started really," says Teamsters local head Joe Molinero, who represents the P-G's drivers and pressmen. Contracts won't expire until Dec. 31, but Molinero says "We agreed to look at the economics and make adjustments to make the company profitable."
In February, owner Alan Block told City Paper there was "featherbedding" among the paper's 1,000 employees, and Molinero was among union officials acknowledging the need to cut labor costs. But instead, Molinero says, management "went and reinvented the wheel ... including practically all the language in all our contracts."
"On the first page of the [proposed new] contract, it says 'Delete existing language and replace with the following ... '" says P-G reporter Mike Bucsko, head of Newspaper Guild Local 38061, the writers' union. That's a paraphrase, he says, but management's intent is clear: "They will basically eliminate the unions from the building." Otherwise, he adds, the company keeps threatening to sell the paper. "They would expect us to throw out 72 years of bargaining ..."
The first Block proposal didn't cover salaries and health-care benefits, which are negotiated separately, but it did deal with such things as vacations and holidays. "They're not giving us anything," Bucsko says. "They're looking to take everything we have."
Block Communications has also hired Seyfarth Shaw, a Chicago law firm, to join the negotiations behind the scenes, says Bucsko; he labels it a "union-busting" firm, a charge echoed by many other unions. The firm often represents management in newspaper labor negotiations, reports Editor & Publisher.
Among the services offered on the firm's Web site is "union avoidance. ... Clients confronted with union organizing attempts, important labor negotiations, union corporate campaigns, unfair labor practice charges, or threats of work stoppages turn to us for sophisticated representation by seasoned professionals who routinely have handled hundreds of such cases."
Allan Block did not respond to a request for comment. While not acknowledging the firm was hired by Block, an assistant in Seyfarth Shaw attorney Jeremy Sherman's office said "our clients" referred all calls about the P-G labor situation to Steve Spolar, P-G's labor-relations director:
Spolar was appalled at the union-busting charge. "That's not what I know that law firm for," he says ... though he did not acknowledge hiring Seyfarth Shaw either. "We are handling the negotiations here. Whatever counsel we use, we will use. We continue to be open to discussion."
Apparent cost-cutting changes at the P-G have continued this spring, though there has been nothing as dramatic as the Feb. 2 layoff of nine non-union employees and the closure of the Washington, D.C., bureau that served the P-G and its sister paper, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. The P-G's Sunday comics are now four pages rather than six, thanks to smaller print. The paper decided in March not to publish the annual League of Women Voters voting guide, the local League chapter reported.
In Toledo, where union contracts expired March 21, the labor situation is even more volatile. In April, Editor & Publisher reported that an anonymous letter was sent to the Pulitzer Board alleging improprieties in a Blade-written series up for the prize. "I am convinced the letter was written from inside our newsroom by people, who for reasons that elude me, believe they can advance their interests in an on-going labor dispute by bringing the newspaper into disrepute," the magazine quoted Blade editor Ron Royhab saying.
Blade union members have protested Block Communications' use of the Tennessee law firm of King & Ballow in their own negotiations, accusing it of union-busting intentions as well. They point to the sudden appearance of "Management Rights" provisions in contract proposals, among other novelties.
"It is no longer a question of 'giving the Blocks what they want' if what they want is to destroy the people who have produced a newspaper that has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist three times in the past six years," says one Toledo Newspaper Guild communiqué.
Concludes the P-G's Bucsko: "Every union in the building ... agreed that there's no reason to talk to [Block Communications] now." In mid-April, he says, the unions notified management that "until they come up with a different kind of proposition ... we told them basically we'll see them in the fall."