Strike cents

The costs of the newspaper strike are heavy for both sides.

WHAT DOES a newspaper strike cost?

The estimates for the eventual cost of Seattle's ongoing labor dispute runs into many millions of dollars. Losses at The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer include the two quarters readers used to put in the newspaper machine (papers have been free since the strike began) and the ads the papers were unable to print at the peak of the Christmas-shopping season.

When interviewed by Seattle Weekly, Seattle Times Co. president H. Mason Sizemore said the two papers had not set a specific date for their return to paid distribution—he's since expressed confidence that free operation can be phased out "before Christmas." Sizemore called his company's strike losses "substantial" but pledged continued improvement in the size and content of coming editions. "We are prepared to sustain those costs and move ahead," he says.

And the price tag is a big one. The Times company has hired replacement truck drivers and a large outside security staff to protect its many production and distribution facilities. The P-I has started hiring temporary newsroom employees; the Times is making due with managers, employees crossing the picket lines, and a few employees on loan from other newspapers.

The worst-case scenario for any striking newspaper is Detroit. When the Newspaper Guild struck the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press in 1995, it led to a contentious five-year multi-union labor dispute, during which both papers replaced all striking workers. The Detroit papers, which (like the Times and P-I) are governed by a joint operating agreement, saw their combined circulation plunge from 900,000 on weekdays and 1.1 million on Sundays before the strike to the current 602,344 daily and 764,591 Sunday. The Free Press, whose circulation was the ninth largest among US papers in 1993, now barely rates a spot in the top 20 (19th in 1998). In the first year and a half of that strike, the two papers reported revenue losses of $112 million.

Of course, the union sees finances from a very different perspective. Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild President Gene Achziger says that wages at the Times and P-I have risen 21 percent over the last decade, while the local consumer price index has risen by 43.9 percent. "You're taking this constant hit every year when you're lagging behind the cost of living," he says. "They are systematically devaluing the jobs."

Sizemore and Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher cite the Guild's opposition to the two papers' performance and merit pay systems as a leading cause behind the strike. If the newspapers want to dish out extra money according to the whims of managers, replies Achziger, workers need the protection of higher standard salaries.

Performance pay policies differ sharply across different newspaper jobs. Newsroom employees at both papers got a 3.5 percent pay raise last year simply for receiving a satisfactory job evaluation. The raises of circulation workers were tied to a more complex system of evaluation ratings. And in the advertising department, performance pay is tied to specific sales targets.

But Guild representatives say these performance-based systems are constantly being changed, often to the detriment of employees. Achziger cites an employee of the Times' classified advertising department, who was making an extra $500 per month under the incentive plan then in place. Recently, the incentive plan was reworked; now she's averaging just $56 per month in incentive pay.

Changes in various company reimbursement policies have meant devastating pay cuts for some employees. Greg Font, an assistant district adviser in the Times' circulation division, says that when the company dropped its mileage reimbursement rate from 56 cents to 32 cents three years ago, some circulation workers saw their annual compensation cut by $2,500 to $3,500.

"Our people have just been being nickeled-and-dimed to death with all these things the company has taken for granted," says Achziger. "What we're trying to do is rectify that and get some of that money back in our members' pockets."

Another major gripe among workers is both newspapers' resistance to providing any company matching funds to the employees' 401(k) retirement savings plan. Even small newspapers provide some company match, say strikers.

But as days pass, strikers face more immediate economic issues like paying the rent and feeding their families. The Guild provides $200 per week in strike pay during the first month of a walkout and $300 per week thereafter, a severe drop from the wages workers were bringing home just two weeks ago. Workers with families face the biggest challenge, says one P-I picketer. "There are people who are really worried and in a situation that's getting to be crunch time."

In an informal survey of 10 strikers at the Times and P-I, half said that two more months on the picket line would empty their savings accounts; the rest said that that long of a layoff would leave their savings severely depleted. Despite this, only one person surveyed had found part-time employment during the strike. A second employee is looking for part-time work, and a third is applying to newspapers in other cities.

One striker argued that the two newspapers would suffer the most from a long strike, through the loss of both valued staff members and community goodwill. "It hurts the company more than it hurts me personally," he says. "I can always get another job."

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