A pivotal year for the Times and its unions

Having never fully recovered from a strike seven years ago, the state's biggest newspaper is entering a period of critical labor negotiations. The company plans to outsource Teamsters jobs, and the Newspaper Guild contract is up for renewal.
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Having never fully recovered from a strike seven years ago, the state's biggest newspaper is entering a period of critical labor negotiations. The company plans to outsource Teamsters jobs, and the Newspaper Guild contract is up for renewal.

Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen makes no secret of his antipathy toward unions. Part of the Times' current financial woes trace back to Blethen's clash with the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild seven years ago. A 49-day strike during the height of the 2000-01 holiday season cratered what should have been a bright year for the paper's advertising, and the Times never bounced back.

Now Seattle's largest daily is about to tangle with an even tougher union foe. Last week, the Times notified two Teamsters locals, which represent drivers, mechanics, and others, that it plans to outsource the work done by 74 union members – the entire trucking unit – to Penske, the big Detroit-based truck leaser. The outsourcing is scheduled to take effect Feb. 29, the day after the Teamsters contract expires.

Times officials were apparently hoping the truckers would go as quietly as customer service reps whose jobs the company farmed out in 2004. But Teamsters officials say they intend to fight, not switch. The Times outsourcing plan would be the first time a newspaper has farmed out a newspaper trucking operation, Teamsters leaders say, and they fear it could set a pattern for the rest of the ailing newspaper industry.

"We are adamantly against this outsourcing, and The Seattle Times knows that," says Joseph Molinero, director of the Teamsters Newspaper, Magazine and Electronic Media Conference. The union has been closely monitoring the Times negotiations here and sent representatives from its D.C. headquarters to sit in on several meetings with Seattle Times Co. officials.

Under its joint operating agreement (JOA) with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Times handles all non-news functions for both papers, including production, distribution, and marketing. The Teamsters negotiations would affect both papers' distribution.

"We're willing to sit down and meet with them if they have financial problems," says Molinero. "But any time an employer confronts us with outsourcing, it's a problem. We'll dig in and fight, if that's what it takes."

Local Teamsters officials complain that Times Co. labor relations director Chris Biencourt tried to pressure the union to bargain in secret, without telling members about the negotiations. "We ignored that," says Patty Warren, senior business agent for Local 174, which represents 67 Times drivers. Officials from the local and Penske plan to meet for the first time Thursday, Jan. 24. "There's a lot we need to know," Warren says.

A showdown with the Teamsters could make this a long spring for Times negotiators. The paper recently told the Guild, which represents about 600 Times workers and another 140 newsroom employees at the P-I, that it plans to cut 14 union circulation jobs, part of an overall plan to eliminate 86 jobs through layoff and attrition. The Guild hasn't received any notice that the Times plans to cut news or advertising positions, says the Guild's Seattle administrative officer, Elizabethe Brown, but the Guild's contract with the Times expires July 21, and bargaining on a new contract is scheduled to start in May. Brown says the union has lost about 10 percent of Times and P-I membership through attrition at the papers in recent years and is in the second year of a wage freeze at the Times.

"It's been hard on our people," Brown says. The Guild will seek to unfreeze wages when contract negotiations begin in May, she says. "They're trying to make the operation smaller, and that will free up money for wage increases," says Brown.

Blethen laid out the Times' financial crunch in a stark memo to the paper's employees Dec. 27. The Seattle Times will lose a total of about $33 million on its print operation for 2007 and 2008, he estimated, and is seeking to cut expenses by $27 million.

Times spokesperson Jill Mackie says a number of other newspapers have taken similar steps toward outsourcing some or all of their logistics and maintenance work, including papers in Kansas City, Indianapolis, Dallas, Atlanta, and Florida. The paper chose Penske, she says, because it has contracts with the Teamsters and agreed to fill more than half the outsourced jobs with Times truckers.

Both the Times and Teamsters could simply be engaged in some early-round bluffing. Molinero says his union has dealt with outsourcing proposals before. "The name of the game is money," he says. "If they need relief we're willing to talk with them, but not about outsourcing."

Mackie says that while the Times has signed a letter of intent with Penske, nothing is final. "We will listen to what the Teamsters have to say," she says.


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