Leaders of the Toledo Newspaper Guild, Local 3404, rejected a proposal by The Blade/Block Communications Inc., calling it a ”wish list” and an ”exercise in creativity.”
Guild officials met with Blade representatives on Feb. 9 to review management’s proposed changes, including a 10-percent cut to all full-time wages, an increase in the workweek from 37.5 hours to 40 hours and a 50-percent weekly contribution of about $80 per employee for health benefits.
The Guild has proposed a new three-year contract including wage increases of 6 percent in 2006, an additional unscheduled day off each year and an opportunity for Guild employees and other employees to purchase The Blade should BCI consider selling the paper. The current contract expires March 21.
Lillian Covarrubias, president of the Newspaper Guild, said the Guild’s proposal is about maintaining a standard of living for the roughly 400 employees it represents.
”We have had a 70-year bargaining history with The Blade — not just the Guild, but the other eight unions that are here,” she said.
Following a Feb. 9 meeting of the Guild’s and The Blade’s negotiating teams, the Guild published a ”negotiations update,” including selections from the newspaper’s proposal.
The update requests The Blade’s ”sole and exclusive right to require of any employee at any time a physical examination by a physician of its choosing to determine said employee’s physical and mental ability to perform his job assignment efficiently and safely. The Company may promote, demote, lay off, or discharge said employee as a result,” along with other at-will employment language.
”It’s very heavy-handed,” Covarrubias said. ”It had absolutely no respect for the union employees. The union negotiator [Bob Ballow] had no respect for the Blocks, for us or the management.”
She said Ballow, a Nashville attorney specializing in labor and media, was insulting. Ballow represented the Chicago Tribune during 1985 contract negotiations and New York Daily News during early 1990s labor issues.
”Essentially, the person they brought in to conduct these negotiations is a union buster,” said Bernie Lunzer, secretary-treasurer of The Newspaper Guild-CWA, the Toledo Guild’s international counterpart. ”Sadly, it’s very tense right now, and I’m afraid that’s what the management wants.”
Fritz Beyers, a longtime Blade attorney and adviser, confirmed to Toledo Free Press he no longer represents The Blade, but did not return subsequent calls seeking an interview.
Block: Blade is not anti-union
Ballow could not be reached at his Nashville, Tenn., office, nor was he available for comment at The Blade office until after press time. But Allan Block, BCI chairman of the board, told Toledo Free Press he is not anti-union.
”I believe the unions serve a very vital purpose,” he said. ”I am not anti-union. The Blade has been pro-union going back very many decades.”
Block said the company is looking to turn around ”softness” in profit over the last few years, not remove the union.
”Does Toledo stand for jobs or does Toledo stand for head-in-the-sand, union-militant, unsustainable positions?” Block said.
Block asserted the situation at The Blade is not comparable with past newspaper labor situations such as the Detroit newspaper strike.
He said the company is asking for the employees to work with a ”new model” of business.
”They have a contract that isn’t supported by business and economic realities in Toledo,” he said. ”The business reality is old media transitioning to something new and being impacted by new media. The economic reality is what is happening in Toledo.”
The Blade recently cut four jobs at its Washington Bureau, leaving one reporter on Capitol Hill. Similar moves have been made in reorganizing the BCI’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which also is negotiating contracts with its workers.
Block said although The Blade has not been as profitable in recent years, it is still making money. He said the problem is the Internet.
”Although we’ve had softness in recent years, our revenues still dwarf any other media in Toledo,” Block said.
But he said if another company could find a bigger profit in The Blade, he will sell.
”I have a fiduciary duty to our other shareholders,” he said. ”These assets are going to be controlled by whoever can get the most value out of them. If we can’t make a profit and others can, you can guess that others will be running The Blade and we will not be.”
Covarrubias said BCI has indicated ”in a number of venues and at different times that they could sell, and that would be their prerogative.”
She said the Newspaper Guild wants to understand the shrinking profits.
”We’re trying to be appreciative of the fact that there might be financial difficulties that we could partner with The Blade and have it be more viable,” she said. ”But that doesn’t mean we’re going to roll over and let them take huge swipes at a very mature contract.”
Lunzer said the Guild recognizes the problems the Internet has presented to newspapers, and the Guild wants to work through it.
”The Web has introduced new difficulties that have to be addressed,” Lunzer said. ”We’re convinced that what we do, the information that we collect and gather and edit is essential and will go forward, and we want to work with the industry on this question of what the future of newspapers is.”
Block said he wants to negotiate a labor contract.
”We don’t want a strike,” he said. ”We will be prepared for it if it happens to run our business, but we don’t want a strike.”
He said even if a strike happens, The Blade will publish.
”There will be a Blade to read,” he said.
He said The Blade is not recruiting workers from area newspapers or universities to produce the paper during a strike.
”If we wanted to recruit, I don’t think we’d go to other papers in the area,” he said. ”We’re not doing any recruiting that I know of at this time.”
Nevertheless, both parties said they will negotiate as long as it takes to reach a new contract.
”We’re going to get a contract,” Covarrubias said. ”It’s going to be a good contract.”
Lunzer, who has attended negotiation meetings
between the Toledo Newspaper Guild and The Blade/BCI, said dialogue is the only way to work out the contract differences.
”We’re in this transition period,” he said. ”The only way we’re going to be able to work
on it is with management, and that requires a dialogue. That’s not what’s going on in Toledo right now.”
He said Ballow is comparable to ”a terrorist” when it comes to union negotiations.
”That’s not problem solving, and the community should be very concerned about that,”
Covarrubias said no matter what happens, the Guild and other unions will remain strong at The Blade.
”The Blade, whether they realize it or not, has dedicated employees, and they want to continue to help in putting out a quality product,” she said. ”The Blocks may own the paper, but I think if you’ve lived in Toledo a very long time, you know The Blade belongs to Toledo.”
The Newspaper Guild represents 25 percent of daily newspaper employees in the United States and Canada, with about 34,000 members in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, Bernie Lunzer, secretary-treasurer of The Newspaper Guild-CWA said.
He said the Guild has maintained 25-percent penetration into the business historically.
Other unions such as the Teamsters are also involved in the Toledo newspaper business, with nine unions total at The Blade.
During past negotiations, newspapers and unions have reached an accord more often than not, according to Editor and Publisher Senior Editor Joe Strupp. He described how both sides try to leverage their positions, but generally agree on terms before a strike becomes necessary.
”I’ve covered a lot of labor negotiations in newspapers, and there’s a lot of posturing that goes on,” Strupp said. ”The unions historically talk hard. They want to get their side out, as they should. And a lot of things get said. More often than not, you don’t have strikes.”
But labor negotiations headed in that direction while Frank Vega, now president and publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, was CEO of the Detroit Newspaper Agency. In 1995, The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press went on strike.
He said the paper did publish despite the union strike, but the newspaper and union suffered. After five years of labor disputes in the Detroit newspapers, 20 percent of subscribers had cancelled their subscription, many because they were union supporters.
”I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nobody wins in a strike,” he said.
He said in the Detroit situation, miscommunication led to the strike. He said early contract proposals were quoted in union material and later revisions never made it to many union members.
”There were raises on the table and there was fully paid health care on the table,” he said. ”And to this day, I don’t understand why there was a strike.”
He said union members suffered when a lack of pay took the toll on workers, some of whom lost their homes. The newspapers lost revenue from advertisers.
”There’s no good that comes out of a newspaper strike. Look at Detroit. Look at Youngstown,” Strupp said, referring to the 261-day strike of Guild employees of the Vindicator that ended in August 2005.
He said more usual is the situation in Baltimore, where employees reached a contract agreement the day before a strike deadline.
”They admitted they couldn’t strike because it would hurt people more than taking the deal,” he said.
Vega said whether management or the union expect a strike, management will prepare for it during negotiations, just as one would prepare for hurricane season.
The Blade refinances weeks before negotiations
In December, The Blade/Block Communications Inc. refinanced from public companies to a private enterprise and reduced the number of shareholders to below the Security Exchange Commission’s maximum for privately held corporations. The move requires ”fairly elaborate disclosures” to shareholders, who must agree to the buyout of public stock, according to Howard Friedman, UT distinguished professor of law. He said more firms are becoming private because of the increased expense of compliance under new regulations.
”A number of companies are doing this,” Friedman said. ”There’s nothing particularly suspicious about it. Companies do it because the cost of complying with all these regulations has gone way up for companies.”
— Scott McKimmy