Striking spin

Management and the newspaper union plead their cases, but they're not giving the full story.

MANAGEMENT HAS been winning the spin wars in the three-week-old strike by the Newspaper Guild. Calling to mind the old saying about the press being free as long as you own it, Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen has felt very free indeed to use the paper as a soapbox for management's position that the strike is just plain baffling given the great wages and working conditions enjoyed by his employees. The spinning has not let up, in columns by him, by executive editor Michael Fancher, and others. The paper has also devoted space to publishing letters sympathetic to management, like one from an employee's wife who described the Times' support while her family adopted a child.

Despite a membership full of people who inform the public for a living, the union has done a comparatively poor job of conveying its point of view. Last week, the Guild started to make up for lost time. It taped a radio spot, began booking speakers with rotary clubs, and set up a meeting with community, business, and religious leaders. The union hopes it can convince such leaders to back it, and they in turn can put pressure on Times and Post-Intelligencer management to settle, says P-I reporter Joel Connelly.

The union's new PR campaign focuses on some key points. Most notably, while the papers insist that they pay above market rate, the Guild stresses that raises have fallen far short of the extraordinary rise in the cost of living over the past decade in Microsoft's hometown. Yet the Guild's public pronouncements still don't fully address its motivation for striking. To do that, you have to go back in time a little.

"It all started in 1987. That's the watershed year," says Guild local Vice President and grizzled Times copy editor Emmett Murray. That's the year the Times and P-I pushed a new system linking raises to performance. Employees would be guaranteed a gradually rising minimum salary, but anything beyond that would be up to the discretion of managers. It's a system most unions, including the Guild, hate because of its arbitrary nature.

The Guild, which now represents nearly 1,000 newspaper workers, came to the brink of striking. What held it back was the lack of support by the paper's second largest union, Teamsters Local 763, representing 607 delivery drivers and newspaper assemblers. "We flinched," says Murray, who was on the Guild's bargaining team at the time. "I'm not proud of it."

When interviewed in 1998 by the trade publication Presstime, Times executive James Schafer explained forthrightly that the performance system has been an attempt to get more out of staff: "We are trying to remove the entitlement mentality common in businesses with long histories." Now, the Times (which handles business operations for both papers) offers a more appealing explanation. Times editor Fancher, in his column, writes that the system "enables" the paper to pay above the minimums. Otherwise, adds Times spokesperson Kerry Coughlin, the company would be locked into paying salaries that might become noncompetitive over the lifetime of a contract.

The union argues, however, that the minimums have become artificial lows that take for granted performance pay. The median minimum pay for newsroom, advertising, and circulation staffers is a modest $34,200, according to the union.

The Times and P-I, tellingly, offers figures with performance pay thrown in. And indeed, the results appear to be pretty good for many employees, from a young reporter making $48,000 to an experienced advertising salesperson earning $55,000 to a circulation manager bringing in $47,000.

Performance pay, however, is not automatic. Ten percent of Guild employees aren't receiving any, according to management. Whatever rules lie behind its dispensation are mystifying and subject to change. That was made manifestly clear last May, when the Times revamped its formula for rewarding bonuses to classified advertising salespeople. Some, like Y. Michelle Ewing, have had trouble reaching the new bar for extra money. Her monthly bonus dropped from a typical $300 to about $50. Given that her base or minimum pay amounts to only $25,000 a year, after 11 years, she's been struggling to get by without the bonuses she's been accustomed to. She got forbearance on a student loan and decided she couldn't even afford the few dollars a month it costs for call waiting.

The change in classified bonuses helped ignite the long-simmering resentment over the performance system. The union is now trying to win the right to negotiate on bonuses and how they are doled out, as well as to raise minimums significantly so that employees won't have to depend on bonuses at all.

But another long-simmering resentment is equally important. It's over a kind of labor negotiations called "pattern bargaining," whereby each of the 15 bargaining units at the Times and P-I adopt the same pattern of raises. In his newspaper, Fancher touts pattern bargaining as a means of ensuring labor stability: "The unions have known that once a pattern is established, the Times will not attempt to settle for less. The Times has known the unions would not attempt a strike to gain more." The alternative, he writes, would be "chaos."

Furthermore, he writes, "The Guild has been an active participant in the process behind pattern bargaining for years."

"This is like blaming the rape victim," responds Guild local President Gene Achziger. "It was shoved down our throats. What's really aggravating about pattern bargaining is that [management] will go to a weaker union and cut a deal that they'll then try to force down the throats of everybody else."

Having elected new leadership two years ago, the Guild was primed to take a stronger stance this time around. The Times and P-I, however, came to the table with an offer beneath the pattern agreed upon with the first union to settle, the same Teamsters Local 763 that bucked a strike in 1987. The papers eventually upped the offer to Local 763's level, a raise of $3.30 an hour over six years, in what they have stuck to as their final offer.

Although the papers did offer some concessions, like the phase-out of substandard pay for zone reporters, the union took their unwillingness to budge beyond the pattern as a sign of disrespect, a thumbing of their noses at the very concept of collective bargaining.

With all that anger built up over 13 years, the Guild decided to walk, even if it meant going out without the support of the more conciliatory Local 763 and other unions, as has happened. "This time, we didn't flinch, we said the hell with you too," says Guild Vice President Murray.

For all its professed bafflement, the Times, if not the P-I, understands the real issues behind the strike very well, as evidenced by the fine print in management's writing on the subject. The issues pertain not to a single year or a single contract but the whole structure of the salary system; that is why both sides have been fighting so hard, and why some staffers fear that prospects for a resolution are bleak.

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