State of the Union: Labor Relations for a New Economy

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Never before has the fundamental necessity and effectiveness of newspapers been so greatly challenged - by the economy, an evolving readership base, and technology. Though optimists would qualify this as a time for opportunity and suggest that "united we stand, divided we fall," recent decades have proven rather contentious, with no shortage of infighting between publishers and the professionals they employ.

It begs the questions: Has anti-union sentiment and a political landscape rife with hyperbole exacerbated negotiations in our industry? What profound impact have specific cases of publisher-labor conversations had on the industry as a whole?

And, most importantly, how can the industry move forward and overcome its challenges while fostering solidarity and nurturing the reverence employees have for the business of publishing, and publishers have for the craftsmen and women who make newspapers?

A CONTENTIOUS CULTURE

Anti-union sentiment is pervasive across the nation today. The recent Wisconsin protests--inspired by legislation that would essentially take away the collective bargaining rights of public employees--sparked great debates at dinner tables and conference tables about an economic and political climate that renders unions vulnerable.

"I think the culture right now is certainly anti-union," said Bernie

Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America (TNG/CWA) in Washington, D.C.

It's easy to understand how the climate has become so contentious. An economy on life support forces business owners to hunker down in foxholes, preparing to hold the bottom line. The upcoming presidential election cycle adds fuel to the fire, with the left and the right leveraging the animosity in the interest of party distinction. Even presidential candidate Michele Bachmann waxed poetic about the abolition of the minimum wage--which she says is a measure to get Americans back to work, but it leaves union members and non-union workers alike preparing to battle back.

Whether the contentious climate in other industries and in the public sector has seeped into publishing, or whether the newspaper industry has been waging its own tug of war between newspaper owners and labor--separate and apart from party politics--may not be as important to discern as trying to figure out how to temper it.

"There has been an ongoing de-unionization of the newspaper industry, like so many other industries," said Nancy Cleeland, director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington, D.C.

Naturally, the more contentious publisher-union negotiations garner the most media attention, such as the recent ease between the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.--accused of the improper layoffs of 11 workers in 2009--and the Albany Guild.

The matter worked its way through the courts and came before the NLRB, which upheld a federal judge's ruling that the publisher's actions were illegal. The publisher was ordered to rehire workers, pay them for lost wages -- estimated by the union at more than $500,000 -reimburse them for lost benefits, plus pay compounded interest.

"Our remedies are pretty limited," said NLRB's Cleeland. "We can only restore the status quo. We can't assess penalties or fines or anything like that. Some people say the NLRB's remedies are very weak, and this is one way to make them a little bit stronger--to compound the interest."

Not all recently settled negotiations have been so favorable for the union employees.

In July 2011, the Toledo Newspaper Guild in Ohio greenlighted a new three-year contract with the Toledo Blade. The guild reported that it struck the deal with the publisher after coming to the conclusion that it would be the best possible offer its members would likely see. The agreement comprised limited outsourcing of jobs; compensation plans that incrementally decreased by 3 percent each year (through 2013), with a "snapback provision" for 2014 (until the contract expires in May 2014); and other facets related to vacation and sick leave, grievance procedures, and even rules governing employees' Internet and social media usage. …