It's not unusual for units of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild and managements of The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer to not get down to serious labor negotiations until contracts are about to expire. The Times and the union met for the first time on Friday, July 18, and while the P-I and the union have been talking longer, very little has been accomplished aside from bickering over who's being the least cooperative in scheduling meetings. Meanwhile, both contracts expire Monday, July 21.
What's different this time is the climate of the newspaper business. It's ugly, getting uglier. To wit: "Grim Reaper: Newspapers Cut 3,500+ Jobs in Two Months."
How the Times uses this broader downturn among big-city dailies and its own particularly tough predicament at the negotiating table remains to be seen. But the P-I is invoking these bad times to make some radical demands, as the following recent memos show.
From: Oglesby, Roger
Sent: Tue 7/8/2008 4:46 PM
Subject: Guild negotiations update
Today the P-I and the Guild held their third negotiating session in an ongoing effort to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. When you last received an email from me on this subject, about a month ago, I expressed the hope that we'd be able to report some significant progress in negotiations in the near future. I'm afraid we'll all have to wait a little longer for that.
It's still very slow going.
After my last message I received an email asking why I had not mentioned that the reason the next bargaining session was not scheduled until June 24 was due in part to the unavailability of one of the P-I bargaining team members. The reason I didn't mention that, as I told the person who sent the email, is that it wasn't true. We have told the Guild repeatedly that we want to meet soon and often. We specifically told them we were prepared to meet without some team members present if they would agree to more negotiating dates.
I bring this up because it's a continuing issue. We raised the subject of meeting more often during the bargaining session on June 24 and were told the Guild wouldn't meet more than twice in July - today and July 30. It wasn't, they explained, that they couldn't meet again until July 30 but rather that they were unwilling to do so. At today's meeting we proposed a dozen dates in August. The Guild declined to commit to any. They said they had to check with their attorney.
So . it's still very slow going.
We responded today to proposals the Guild gave us June 24, indicating which we were rejecting and which we were willing to work with them on. The Guild's piecemeal approach at a time that calls for quick action is disappointing. After three bargaining sessions we still do not have a complete union proposal, and a significant amount of what is being proposed from the union side of the table is simply unrealistic in the current business climate.
To survive in today's world the P-I needs to be able to operate more flexibly and efficiently than it ever has, in a media environment that is changing more rapidly than ever in my lifetime. We offered a comprehensive proposal today that will move us toward that kind of an operation. It is not a warm and fuzzy proposal. It's a tough proposal for a tough time. It is, purely and simply, a proposal designed for survival.
It is imperative in these times for the P-I to have maximum operational flexibility. Anyone looking at the P-I's proposal will see that it involves many changes. Some simply update the language of a collective bargaining agreement that is decades old, but many are specifically designed to provide maximum flexibility for our organization at a time when it is direly needed. Let there be no mistake. This is not about personal flexibility. It's about operational flexibility for the company. That's what is needed to save jobs and help us survive as a business entity.
Some aspects of the P-I proposal will be unpopular. There are no raises in this proposal, and no one will be happy about that. But sometimes things we don't like are necessary, just as the Guild apparently deemed it necessary to accept a wage freeze at The Seattle Times two years ago. At the end of the day, ours is a necessary proposal for a difficult time - a time filled with challenges with which we're all familiar. It's a lean time in the newspaper business. Anyone who thinks the stories about imperiled newspapers don't apply to us should think again.
I've said before that the success of these negotiations is important to saving as many jobs as we can in an increasingly difficult economic climate. None of this is getting any easier. That's exactly why the parties need to negotiate seriously, quickly and in good faith toward a new agreement. Only then can there be reason to hope that we will be able to get to a contract that will get us through the next couple of years. I continue to believe there's reason to hope.
From: email@example.com on behalf of Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild
Sent: Wed 7/9/2008 4:09 PM
Subject: P-I Bargaining Update
The Guild and P-I bargaining teams met Tuesday for our third session of collective bargaining. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, we met when we met because that's when we could meet.
Let's just say this, so we don't go back and forth with the blame game on scheduling issues: You are journalists. We don't need to tell you to be skeptical about what you hear from on high.
Roger's right about one thing: it is slow going.
The P-I, under Roger's direction, has unfurled a proposal that is a major rewrite of our contract. The P-I took our proposal, which includes reasonable and creative ways to make the most of our limited resources, and rejected virtually all of our suggested changes, including more PTO and increased use of telecommuting and alternate locations for work.
The company's message to us: Employees are not an asset. We do not have value outside of what we can do for them. And they will dictate how, when, why, where and who does reporting, photographing, blogging and all the other work we do.
This is not a proposal about survival. This is a proposal designed to drive an exodus from the P-I. It undermines important things such as seniority, wages, the right to take leaves of absence and the ability to use technology to be more mobile and competitive.
There is flexibility all right -- all in one direction. From you to your employer.
Employee retention is their intention, P-I leaders say. It's ours too. But these are the highlights of the proposal they gave us:
-- A two-year wage freeze. We responded by demanding that a union accountant have access to examine the books.
-- Layoffs would be determined by the Publisher's assessment of employee merit, ability and competency, with seniority used only as a tie-breaker among employees of equal merit. The Publisher wants the right to designate half the people in each job classification as employees of "major importance" who are immune from layoff, regardless of seniority.
-- Sick leave would be six days a year, with employees able to build up a bank of 60 days. However, if you use sick leave, you could be asked to "submit to an examination by a doctor chosen by the Publisher."
-- Unpaid personal leaves of absence would be limited to pre-approved leaves for fellowships or study grants, with no guarantee of returning to a comparable position.
As for our proposal to enter the 21st century by allowing more people to telecommute and work from mobile locations, the P-I said that "people need to interact with each other," and "there is value in having people come back to a central location." Telecommuting, we were told, disturbs the cohesiveness of a work unit.
Our next session is at 10 a.m., July 30.
Your bargaining team,