The Guild gets an 'offer'

Dateline: Thu 16 Apr 2009

In the mid-1980s, when I was active in the Indianapolis Star Newspaper Guild, we once ran a campaign to drum up membership in the newsroom and elsewhere.

"JOIN THE GUILD AND NOBODY GETS HURT" was the slogan on one of many signs we posted. (George McLaren gets credit for that one, although John Hawn and I did a lot of the display work). Yes, the signs were taped in the city room, on those pillars that held the ceiling up. Management never objected to such a blatant recruitment, and later on, I found out why....

The Guild at the Star was never a closed shop. You could choose or not to join; it was not mandatory, as it was at other newspapers in towns with a strong labor record. Typically, reporters and others who did not join has this as their reason: "Why should I trust the Guild? I have a great relationship with management...I'm my own best advocate."

Around that time, a Guild rep out of Chicago told me the story he'd heard long ago: "(Publisher) Gene Pulliam used to say, when critics would get on him about a union presence at the (right-wing) Indianapolis Star, 'They are so weak, they don't give me any trouble.'"

Now comes reality check. That Guild, once weak, now considerably stronger in the face of relentlessly greedy Gannett, has a contract proposal from Gannett management that is so egregious everyone should simply walk out the door.

In a nutshell, management wants 12 percent pay cuts, no security that more sacrifice won't be asked down the road and for the Guild to drop its efforts to re-instate employees laid off this winter.

Will it be taken to a vote? Will it pass? The words of Pulliam hang in the air.

Here's the Inkling on the subject/proposal:

"As you are all aware, the Indy News Guild has been involved in contract negotiations with Gannett since January. The labor process has been slow and frustrating, and it's been complicated by the recession and economic freefall of the newspaper industry. You all have voted twice to approve furloughs that cut your paycheck by 1.94% each time. You have done your part to keep the company afloat.

"Now the company has come forward, and it's asking for more sacrifice. (Elements of the deal are presented below.) The Indy News Guild bargaining committee - while offering NO endorsement and NO recommendation - has agreed to take Gannett's plan to the union membership for a vote.

"The union has only had parts of two days to digest this plan, but our representative from The Newspaper Guild in negotiations, Jay Schmitz, believes that given the current economic climate and the state of the newspaper industry, it is unlikely, without an intense, vocal mobilization campaign - that prolonged negotiations will result in an improved deal. The membership could reject the proposal, and the negotiating committee will resume negotiations where we left off, and continue to keep bargaining until another agreement is achieved or the parties reach impasse.

"The contract would be for two years effective the date it is signed through that date in 2011. It would cut your pay by 8% on July 1 and another 4% on Oct. 1. There would be no additional furloughs and no pay cuts for the remainder of the two-year contract. While there is no written guarantee, it is likely we could save jobs and prevent further wage cuts.

"You'll have many questions; we have some answers, but ultimately the company is asking employees to take on faith the fact that Gannett is in desperate straits. Please give the bargaining committee a chance to provide explanations. Keep in mind the committee has minimized some of the damage and that we have attempted numerous alternatives. Also keep in mind, that if the membership rejects this proposal, be prepared to be more actively in involved in activities in support of the bargaining committee's efforts to get a fair agreement. That is everyone in the Guild and is more than displaying desk signs and wearing lanyards.

"Here are the details:

"* The Guild agrees to a two-year term, effective at the signing of the agreement.

* Four positions will be removed from the Guild (two designer editors, calendar editor and a business editing slot).

* Wages:

o July 1 cut: 8%

o Oct. 1 cut: 4%

o No increases for the two years of the contract.

o Scales (the "steps" earned by newcomers) will remain in the contract, but no one will advance in the scales for the two-year term of the agreement.

o The current language relating to the merit pay system will remain in the contract, but the merit pool will be at 0% and wages will be frozen for the two-year term of agreement.

o The Guild retains grievance and arbitration rights.

o There is no change to vacations or personal leave days.

o A more defined process has been agreed upon for layoffs. However, seniority is no longer the dominant factor in determining who will be laid off; performance, skills and disciplinary record will also be considered.

* The company withdraws its "same-basis language" that would effectively kill the Guild's power to intervene in day-to-day affairs.

* The company withdraws its clause that would have granted it greater abilities to outsource Guild work.

* Paraprofessionals can write stories of a simple nature.

* No signing bonus.

* Some positions, certain sports beats and columnists, will be exempt from OT.

* Certain language that relates to advertorial work is still being hammered out.

More details will be forthcoming.

NOTE: The company won't guarantee, in writing, that if we agree to this overall 12% pay cut that they won't come back at a later date and ask for more. But in all practicality, unless the company suffers a dramatic financial setback, the company has given us verbal assurances that the Guild will not be asked to take any further financial cuts. In other words, if Gannett enacts a third-quarter furlough companywide, it should not apply to the 200+ members of our Guild because we have already "given at the office." This has been the company's practice in relation to other union bargaining units in other cities.

NOTE 2: Agreeing to this deal means we would have to drop a grievance the Guild filed after the Dec. 3 layoffs. We are representing seven people who we contend were laid off in violation of the seniority clause of the contract. We have spent a great deal of time trying to get those people rehired or get them some type of settlement. If the membership approves this agreement, that arbitration will be dropped.

We will keep you posted on the date of the information session and the vote."

As former Guild president Marc Allan would have said, and did say, and no doubt still does, "This sucks."

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