Labor Pains in Keystone State: 10-Month-Old Strike at Family-Owned Newspaper Company Shows No Sign of Ending

Article excerpt

FOR THE PAST year, newspaper industry labor trouble and Detroit have been nearly synonymous. The bruising Motor City strike, marred by violence and intransigence, recently entered its ninth month.

But about 250 miles away in Ellwood City, Pa., a smaller-scale labor dispute is raging at Citizen Publishing and Printing Co. Some 40 workers at the company's two newspapers, the 6,671-circulation daily Ledger and weekly Valley Tribune, are 10 months into a strike.

Bargaining representatives for Citizen Publishing and Printing Co., and the employees, who are represented by Teamsters Local 261, say they cannot reach an agreement, despite almost 25 negotiating sessions over 14 months.

Salary parity and increases, improved health care and retirement packages head the union's wish fist. Doug Campbell, president and principal officer of Local 261, asserts-that currently 80% of Citizen Publishing employees make less than $6.17 per hour. Almost 60%, he said, earn less than $5.00 per hour.

Scott Kegel, general manager for the family-owned Ledger, won't refute those figures, but, he said, "There are some people here making over $10 per hour with excellent benefits."

Representatives from each side express a desire to end the strike, but hopes for a timely resolution may be stunted by the company's recent move to designate formerly temporary replacement workers as permanent employees.

"Up until March 14, our doors were open," Kegel said. "Now, there are no negotiations scheduled at this time."

He said that late last year, the two sides reached a tentative agreement which subsequently fell apart.

"We had about 28 negotiating meetings over one and-one-half years," Kegel said. "We shook hands, and then the union backed out. Their demands continued to escalate and became increasingly unrealistic."

Campbell said he wasn't surprised by the move to permanently hire the temporary employees.

"We always felt that the intent was to replace the workers, from day one," he said. "We were close on some issues, but never enough for closure."

Kegel said that aside from "scattered vandalism of our street boxes and trucks," Detroit-scale violence has not accompanied the strike.

The striking employees and a group of volunteers publish a twice-weekly newspaper, the Ellwood City Press. The mostly free circulation newspaper covers community events and averages about 14 pages, Campbell said. Approximately 11,000 copies are printed each issue and carriers deliver the Press to residential homes and distribution sites.

The Press competes with the Ledger for advertising dollars, and Kegel acknowledges that the Press has taken "some" business from the Ledger. Kegel disputes, however, Campbell's contention that the Ledger has lost 3,000 subscribers since the strike began.

As if a deadlock isn't enough to slow the negotiations, Citizen Publishing Co. is suing Campbell and Local 261 for libel. The suit is over a letter to the editor, published in the Press, from a former employee who was critical of the company and its management.

In response, Local 261 has filed a defamation suit against Citizen Publishing, which Kegel contends is "frivolous."

Campbell said he holds a "trickle of hope" a contract will be agreed upon, but he is pessimistic about the company's "corporate greed."

"It's a cancer in the labor movement," Campbell said.

"They've never pleaded poverty, they've never said they can't afford it. They pay increases in paper costs and other things, but they never want to share with employees - they hoard it all and stick it in their pockets. …