Stop the presses?

A strike looms at The Seattle Times and P-I.

THIS CITY HASN'T SEEN a daily newspaper strike in almost 50 years, but rumblings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer indicate that record may be in peril.

The Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild has asked its union's national leadership to set a strike date during Thanksgiving week. The guild is letting the management at the two Seattle dailies know that stagnant contract negotiations need to shift into high gear.

Strike votes and strike dates are nothing new in the always contentious world of contract negotiations between the Seattle newspapers and their employees. Nor is the timing of this uprising a surprise— daily newspapers traditionally draw their largest portion of advertising revenue in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But with the two sides' most recent contract proposals still far apart and time running out, Guild members are eyeing the possibility that they could be on the picket line within the month.

"I'm stocking up on peanut butter and jelly," jokes one newspaper employee.

The guild, which represents some 850 employees at the two newspapers, wants a three-year contract with across-the-board hourly salary increases of $3.50 in the first year and $2 in both the second and third year. The company has responded by requesting a six-year contract with a yet-to-be-determined first-year raise, plus annual salary bumps of just 45 cents per hour in the remaining five years.

Guild Administrative Officer Larry Hatfield says three-year contracts are pretty much the standard in the newspaper industry. Guild membership would probably consider a longer contract, but ownership will need to open its wallet, not just its change purse. Or, as the headline of a recent Guild newsletter summed members' view of the offer: "Cheap, Cheap, Cheap."

The newspapers' management may be surprised by the level of unity among Guild members, say employees at both papers. It's a combination of factors: Longtime workers feel that management got off easy during negotiations for the last two contracts and that it's time to catch up on inflation-gutted salaries. Younger employees say compensation at the two newspapers has lagged behind the salaries paid by other metropolitan newspapers and editorial jobs outside the newspaper industry.

The guild is also strengthening alliances within organized labor. Teamsters Local 174 cosponsored a Halloween rally with the Guild, which was attended by representatives of other Seattle unions. If there is a newspaper strike, the willingness of other unions to honor the picket lines, especially the Teamsters—who drive newspaper deliver trucks—is crucial for success.

"Seattle is a union town, and these newspapers are about to find that out again," says Hatfield. "We're getting a lot of support from the labor community, and if we do have to go on strike, I think we would get even more support."

The distance between the press lords and their ink-stained serfs on money matters belies the fact that the two sides have met some 19 times since July. There also has been minimal progress on other issues on the table. Both Times management and Guild leadership have dug in their heels on the union's call to drop a contract provision that sets salaries for 18 writers and photographers at suburban bureaus at just 85 percent of the pay enjoyed by their downtown colleagues. The company wants to keep the system to maintain its "aggressive" suburban coverage; the guild says the two-tiered system must go. Times Managing Editor Mike Fancher failed to endear himself to staffers when he appeared at a recent bargaining session to argue that suburban reporters often have less experience and write about less complex subjects and, therefore, deserve their smaller paychecks.

Guild officials say Times leadership has been generally less willing to bargain productively than their P-I counterparts. The Times also carries the psychological burden of an ongoing contract dispute at the Portland Press Herald, a daily newspaper it recently purchased in Maine. Visitors to the guild's Web site can use links to get updates on that battle, in which Times Publisher Frank Blethen has been cast as the greedy absentee owner.

Hatfield says he could imagine a scenario in which P-I employees sign a contract and the guild calls a strike against the Times; although, it's an unlikely one, given the two paper's contractual ties through a joint operating agreement.

With bargaining sessions resuming on November 9, there's certainly time for the situation to be settled before the first picket sign gets hoisted, say newspaper officials. "What's surprising to us is that they're moving right to talk of a strike when we've simply put out an initial proposal and we have further negotiations scheduled," says Times spokesperson Kerry Coughlin.

But if a strike is called, both papers say they'll keep publishing, even with their regular reporters on the picket line. "We're prepared to continue to publish and serve the community in the event they do choose to go out on strike," says Coughlin.

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