"I WANT TO BE WORKING," says Seattle Times reporter Joshua Robin, picket sign in hand. "And we will as soon as we have a fair contract."
Robin and other newspaper workers found themselves in the unfamiliar role of newsmakers November 21 as employees of Seattle's two dailies took to the picket lines.
The strike follows six months of unsuccessful contract negotiations between The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer and about 1,000 workers represented by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild.
Seattle's first newspaper strike of the new millennium got off to a late start as workers voted at 2am Tuesday to reject a federal mediator's request for two more days of negotiations. A 12:01am strike deadline had been set, but the union was forced to delay the final prestrike membership meeting until it could find a room large enough to hold all the participating workers.
On the first day of the strike, the Times' Fairview Avenue offices were ringed by a large complement of protesters—some 850 employees in editorial, clerical, advertising, and circulation jobs have been idled by the strike. Times management set an unusually martial tone on day 1, with security fences encircling two small company-owned parks, ground-floor windows covered with plywood, and black-clad security officers in plain sight. Spokesperson Kerry Coughlin says these precautions were taken based on the history of violence and property damage during recent newspaper work stoppages. "The measures that we've taken are to ensure the safety of the people that are working at The Seattle Times and to ensure the safety of our property, as well," she says.
The atmosphere was far more sedate at the P-I's Elliott Avenue headquarters: Music was playing on a boom box, and the two security guards present chatted with strikers. Passing truckers constantly saluted the picket line with air-horn blasts.
Under the joint operating agreement linking the two papers, the P-I operates only an editorial office. While this situation makes for more cordial relations between strikers and management, it also lends a greater sadness to the shutdown, notes P-I reporter Vanessa Ho. "For us, it feels strange because it's just a newsroom up there and we're all friends with the editors."
DESPITE MONTHS OF TALKS and five days of marathon negotiations leading up to the strike, the two sides remain divided on several basic issues. The two newspapers want a six-year contract; the union is offering the standard three years. The Guild wants to drop a two-tiered pay system for suburban edition writers and photographers; management's best offer has been to phase it out over the length of the contract. And the newspapers don't want to institute any sort of matching fund program for their employees' 401(k) retirement savings accounts.
On the money front, the union is seeking across-the-board hourly pay hikes in each of the next three years of $1.25 the first year, and $1 each in the second and third years. Times and P-I management haven't yet reached for the paper money: Their final offer granted across-the-board hourly raises of 75 cents the first year, 60 cents the second, 50 cents each of the next three years, and 45 cents in the sixth and final year of the contract.
Employees at the two papers complain that management seems intent on wringing concessions from workers during excellent economic times. Union spokesperson and P-I sports columnist Art Thiel says he's been surprised that management won't budge on its demand for a six-year contract. "We thought for sure there'd be some give," he says. Given the rising cost of living in Seattle, especially in the area of housing, the Guild is naturally reluctant to increase the length of the contract without significant salary increases, says Thiel.
"It was a very fair offer, a very competitive offer," counters Times spokesperson Coughlin. "The parties aren't talking right now, which is not to say that they won't be soon or they don't want to be. We made a final offer yesterday to the Guild that expired at midnight, and that's where we are."
Although many writers at the two papers earn more than the Guild-negotiated minimums, workers in other departments depend on salary scale increases to keep up with the cost of living, say strikers. "It isn't just our fight," says P-I capitol correspondent Angela Galloway. Her colleague Ho notes that journalists often write stories about social and economic justice issues but are now being called upon to stand up for these principles in their own workplace.
"Now that we are here [on the picket line]," says Galloway, "we feel very unified and strong and together."
WHILE JOURNALISTS PICKET, news keeps happening. Both papers intend to maintain regular publication and the Guild has unveiled an online strike paper, entitled the Union Record. A tabloid print edition of the Union Record will first appear later this week and will be printed five times a week for the duration of the strike, according to editor Chuck Taylor.
One highlight of the Union Record will be regular pieces by popular striking columnists, including Thiel, Times' news item maven Jean Godden, and the P-I's feature section columnist Jon Hahn. "If you want to read your favorite people, that's where you've got to go," says Ralph Erickson, who works in the Times' circulation department.
The Times and P-I will fill their news pages with wire service copy and stories written by management employees. "Our managers from the editorial departments are working in the newsroom today, and we don't think we're going to have any problem getting a paper out," says P-I publisher Roger Oglesby. Managers from other papers in the Hearst chain (which owns the P-I) have come to Seattle to help with the short-handed operation, he adds. "Getting a paper out under these circumstances is not going to be an easy proposition. But we're going to try to make it feel to the reader like the paper he or she normally gets."
The Times' Coughlin says that some Guild-represented editorial employees have crossed picket lines and that the paper has journalists on loan from other newspapers around the country. "We also have a really good staff of managers and editors in the newsroom who, as you might guess, are all career journalists."
The Associated Press, a cooperative news service whose membership includes both Seattle dailies, operates a Seattle bureau staffed by 12 reporters and two photographers. "As a matter of course, we often cover the same things that [the Seattle dailies] are covering," says Bureau Chief Dale Leach. Associated Press stories on Seattle topics are generally published by newspapers in other parts of Washington state and the Pacific Northwest, although many will probably find their way into the Times and P-I during the strike.
Which brings us to the toughest part of any strike: the waiting game. Thiel says the Guild is ready to return to the bargaining table whenever management wants to reinstate talks. "There's nothing in the works," he says, "although we would be eager to send our [negotiating] team over."
"Where it goes from here, it's not really up to us," says Times spokesperson Coughlin. "We didn't call this strike."