Who's got the contract?

Each side accuses the other of gamesmanship in the newspaper strike.

Some striking Seattle Times employees may not have jobs to come back to even if a new contract is accepted by the membership of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, the company announced Tuesday afternoon.

Mason Sizemore, Seattle Times Company president, says that the company plans to offer permanent jobs to some workers who have been taking the place of Guild members during the four-week-old strike against the Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. These would be coupled with cuts in the company's workforce of 10 percent or more, he told reporters.

Lost advertising and circulation revenues caused by the strike are the reason for the cuts, says Sizemore. "We're going to find a way to be profitable in the future—with or without the Guild."

Although hopes were bright for a contract vote this week, the situation seems to have reached a standoff. Management had hoped that a contract vote would be held at a previously scheduled Monday meeting of the Guild membership, but union officials say the formal offer from the Times arrived just one hour before the meeting, leaving insufficient time for review.

Both the Times and P-I say they have formal offers on the table, but the Guild says there will be no vote unless members who work in the Times composing room are included in the offer. Sizemore says the company will not address the composing room contract in its offer.

Guild officials reacted with dismay to Sizemore's announcement. "This is an incredibly cynical ploy to try and break this strike," says Linda Foley, president of the International Newspaper Guild.

The Times' move could also be trumped by a Guild unfair labor practices complaint now before the National Labor Relations Board. If the union proves its charge that Times managers illegally threatened workers with the loss of their jobs over participating in the strike, the government could order the reinstatement of laid-off workers

Even in the midst of these charges and countercharges, both Sizemore and Guild spokesperson Art Thiel say they hope a vote can be held this week on a proposed new contract for 1,000 Times and P-I employees.

As with their last offer, management at the two papers says their new proposal features "fair and competitive" employee compensation. While the basic wage package—$3.30 per hour in raises over six years—remains the same, the Times has addressed Guild concerns about aiding workers in lower-paid positions in the circulation and advertising departments. The company has offered to move some lower-paid workers up to higher pay grades and to limit the number of advertising salespeople paid on a commission-only basis.

The P-I, which employs only newsroom workers, has made fewer changes to its offer. The new contract language would eliminate a proposal for three new paid days off for P-I workers, shifting the money to employee health care premiums. Both papers would also phase out two-tiered pay scales for suburban reporters over three years, not the six years stated in the previous contract offer.

Predictably, Guild officials greeted these small changes with faint praise. "Some of the things the papers did showed a small amount of progress," says spokesperson Ron Judd.

Although a successful resolution could get workers back on the job by Christmas, Guild members say there's a good chance management's latest offer might be voted down. Some complained that management's timing in making its offer smacked of gamesmanship.

But worker interest in getting back on the job before Christmas is more than symbolic. Newspaper unions are most likely to strike during the holiday shopping season because it's the most lucrative advertising period for daily papers. After the holiday, ad counts drop and newspapers get smaller— minimizing the economic threat posed by a strike.

Until the strike is settled, the Guild has pledged to keep the economic pressure on both papers by encouraging readers to cancel their subscriptions. Thiel says that thousands of readers have already done so. "We held off for three weeks in hoping the company would negotiate in good faith," he says. "There were a lot of people who thought we should do it sooner."

Strikers have also distributed leaflets outside stores operated by major newspaper advertisers (including the Bon Marché, Banana Republic, and Office Depot) asking shoppers to pressure retailers not to advertise in the two papers during the strike.

In an open letter to readers, P-I publisher Roger Oglesby called the boycott "an assault on the newspapers as businesses" and stated that such a tactic "puts jobs at risk."

Concerns over lost subscribers aren't limited to management: Officials of the Guild's parent union, Communications Workers of America, have pledged to finance a campaign to urge former subscribers to resubscribe to the two news- papers once the strike ends.

Frank the Flamer

Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen has written that the newspaper strike has made him "angry." Insane with rage would be more like it, judging by an e-mail he sent to Eastside Journal publisher Peter Horvitz. It said, in full:

Fuck you to death.

Your ex-friend Frank.

Horvitz, who confirmed the e-mail that has become hot gossip in newspaper circles, got on Blethen's bad side by printing the first edition of the Newspaper Guild's strike paper, Seattle Union Record.

Blethen didn't return phone calls seeking comment on the e-mail. But perhaps Blethen viewed Horvitz as the management equivalent of a scab. Or perhaps the Times publisher thought his Eastside competitor was trying to use the miserable situation on Fairview Avenue to his own advantage.

For his part, Horvitz insists he didn't realize that the print job requested by the union the day before the walkout was a strike paper. The Journal runs a commercial printing operation and doesn't ask many questions of its clients, he says: "We believe in a free press. If it's legal, we will print it." In any case, Horvitz says he assumed by the small size and pressrun of the Guild job that it was an internal communication. By the time he realized it was in fact a strike paper, he felt it was too late to renege on his commitment. At the same time, he told staffers to let the Guild know that the Journal wouldn't be printing any more editions. Although Horvitz maintains that there's nothing inherently wrong with a publisher's printing a strike paper, he says he didn't want to get "involved" in the strike.

His printing of that first edition caused a stir in the publishing world, however. A non-Seattle publisher, whom Horvitz won't name, griped about it in a group e-mail to colleagues around the state. Horvitz's response explaining his rationale prompted Blethen's flame. When Horvitz wrote Blethen back in what he characterizes as a civil tone, he says, he received another e-mail from Blethen with "more of the same, and that was the end of the communication."

NINA SHAPIRO

 
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