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ProJo, Newspaper Guild Union contract talks bogged down

December 30, 2010

Negotiators for ProJo management and the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents more than 300 editorial, advertising and maintenance workers, are at loggerheads over the issues of wages and health care. There is no surprise here; these are the sticking points in many union-management jousts in our recession-wracked economy.

The union contract expires at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Said union president, reporter John Hill, “That we are having problems with wages and health care should come as no surprise to anyone bargaining a contract in this environment.’’

The Guild understands that there will be concessions, Hill said. The newspaper industry is in difficult straits and employees at other New England newspapers _ both larger and smaller _ have witnessed wage reductions. Boston Globe employees recently took a 7 percent pay cut and workers at the Worcester Telegram, who are represented by the Providence Guild, saw their paychecks decline by 3 percent.

The contract has an `evergreen’ clause, which means that even though it expires Friday evening at midnight, management and labor agree to work under the terms of old contract language until a new one is ratified. (This is the provision that RI teacher unions want the General Assembly to codify; most private sector labor agreements include it.)

The evergreen provision means that employees would continue to receive their current wage levels and pay their current share of health insurance costs, which is about 15 percent. According to Hill, the company wants to sharply increase the share of health care costs that workers are responsible for.

The two sides have been in talks since October, but are not close to a resolution on the overarching issues, says Hill.

Labor-management relations at the Journal have usually followed a pattern of sharp-elbowed negotiations, followed by compromise contracts and a period of labor peace that has lasted until the contract expired. There has not been a strike at the state’s largest newspaper since 1973; no one expects one this time.

But that paradigm evolved after the paper was bought by the A.H. Belo company, publisher of the Dallas Morning News. The Texas-based owners do not have unions at their other newspaper properties and several years ago they provoked a bitter, four year contract stalemate that ended only after the NLRB took management to task for  bad faith bargaining and the union refused to buckle under until it got a decent agreement.

But times have changed. The backdrop to the current round of negotiations is a deep decline in the newspaper’s core businesses. The paper, once considered one of the nation’s premier mid-sized newspapers, lost 10 percent of its circulation over the last year, which is twice the 5 percent national average slide of newspaper circulation. For the first time in the Projo’s modern history, circulation has fallen below 100,000, to an average daily circulation of 96,595 copies, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s October report.

Sunday Journal circulation fell from 154,300 to 137,339. And the newspaper’s web site, Projo.com, saw a drop in online eyeballs, from 1.26 million unique hits a year ago to 1.19 million. Managing decline is never easy in any business and the high fixed costs of the newspaper industry  (The Projo is one of the last manufacturing companies  in Providence) make it especially challenging.

Hill says employees are under no illusions; they realize this is not a time when they get a 1980s, or 1990s style contract. But they do not want to get hit all at once with a health care bill that would cut into the middle-class lifestyles the Guild has won for ProJo employees.

There are no last-minute negotiations planned and both sides, Hill said, realize they will be back at the table in talks about how to resolve an expired contract.

“No one is hitting the panic button yet,’’ says Hill. “But we are hitting the frustration button.’’

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