Ink-stained wretches, unite!

"It isn't just our fight": Times/P-I staffers hold out for a better contract.

"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 as employees of Seattle's two dailies took to the picket lines. Representatives of The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer will be meeting with a federal mediator at his request this week, but no formal negotiation sessions between newspaper management and union representatives have been scheduled. The strike follows six months of unsuccessful contract talks between the two papers and about 1,000 workers represented by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild.

The public face of the strike has been an ugly one at the Times' Fairview Avenue offices, with security fences encircling two small company-owned parks, ground-floor windows covered with plywood, and black-clad security officers in plain sight. Confrontations at the Times' North Creek printing plant in Bothell also grew heated last Wednesday night, as some 400 Guild strikers—who had just left a rally— delayed the exit of newspaper delivery trucks. In contrast, the only disturbances at the P-I's Elliott Avenue headquarters have been the loud air horn blasts from passing truckers.

At least readers have gotten one good thing from the strike: free daily newspapers. Both the Times and P-I distributed last week's stripped-down editions (just 24 pages on the first two days of the strike) on a no-charge basis. The first Sunday paper during the strike numbered only 40 pages, but its size was boosted by the insertion of advertising circulars, the TV schedule, and Parade magazine. Seattle Times Co. President H. Mason Sizemore says the two papers will return to charging for their product "when the content of the newspaper is back to a near normal level and when we're confident that the service is 100 percent."

Local readers could also turn to the Union Record, a Guild-run Web paper with a free limited-run newsprint edition. While most stories in the dailies featured generic "staff" bylines, the Union Record has the advantage of featuring popular columnists, including P-I sportswriter Art 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, a district advisor in the Times' circulation department.

Those same familiar faces have been sighted on the picket lines. The P-I's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, David Horsey, joined strikers at the North Creek plant while Thiel, whose face adorned publicity cards on many P-I newspaper boxes at the start of the strike, has been the Guild's designated press spokesman. Calling the first days of picketing "hectic," Thiel speaks for many of his striking colleagues when he says, "It's not anything that any of us are experienced at."

P-I reporter Vanessa 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. "It isn't just our fight," agrees P-I capitol correspondent Angela Galloway.

MONEY ISN'T THE ONLY issue on the bargaining table: 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.

Though the newspapers' management has stressed that most newsroom employees are well-paid (a reporter with six years' experience earns a minimum of $43,888 annually), Guild officials note that workers in other departments make far less. For example, advertising clerks and receptionists (the lowest-paid category in the department) start at a minimum of $19,359 annually. The highest-compensated advertising job is outside sales person, with a starting minimum salary of $27,388. Circulation department workers make similar salaries. Many writers at both papers earn more than the Guild-negotiated minimums, but workers in other departments are often paid straight scale. Officials at the two papers say the final across-the-board salary increases offered were comparable to those obtained in recent contracts the Guild has signed in other cities, such as San Jose and Detroit. "And that's on top of the fact that those jobs here are [already] paid competitively," says Sizemore.

SO HOW DID Seattle journalists end up on the picket lines? Each side claims that the other was spoiling for this fight. Sizemore says that union leaders have been talking strike since the Guild contract expired this July. "I've been at The Seattle Times for almost 36 years, and I've never heard a union threatening to strike before the negotiations even began," says Sizemore. "Now, I don't know why that was, but it did put us on notice that this was a very different kind of negotiation."

Thiel agrees that these negotiations are unusual but says that management hasn't given an inch, even as the Guild has scaled down its demands considerably. "The Times and P-I management made it clear at the start of negotiations that they were going to stick to a wage offer which amounted to $3.30 over six years," he says. "They said at the outset that that's where we're going to be, and, lo and behold, that's where they ended up on Monday [the strike deadline]. To me, that's not bargaining."

Both sides acknowledge that some resentment has built up over recent contracts. Sizemore says Guild leadership has been critical of a merit pay structure that was instituted after a 1987 contract negotiation. The issue "is always in the background," he continues, "and in fact the Guild has attempted to reduce or eliminate the impact of any kind of variable compensation." Thiel agrees that the papers' so-called "pay for performance" systems are unpopular with workers. "In editorial, the merit pay [system] is never the same one year to the next, nor is it tied to any cost of living increase," he says.

Sizemore says that a federal mediator who supervised the last round of talks will be meeting with Times management this week, although no talks between the papers and the Guild have yet been scheduled. "The parties aren't talking right now, which is not to say that they won't soon or they don't want to be," notes P-I publisher Roger Oglesby.

But until management calls for more talks, employees of the two papers will hold their signs high and pray for good weather. "Now that we are here [on the picket line]," says Galloway, "we feel very unified and strong and together."

 
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