Freedom of information

Why does the Times want to lay off workers?

IT'S A BITTER PILL for strikers. The Seattle Times claims it has lost so much money from the newspaper strike that it must lay off 10 percent of its staff. By striking for better conditions, then, workers have made matters much worse. At least, that's the message the Times is giving its staff.

But the Times is being sketchy about the financial details. Newspaper President Mason Sizemore says the paper has lost "millions" but won't specify how many, nor will he quantify what he claims has been a "severe dampening" on profits. The Times is a private company, adds spokesperson Kerry Coughlin, and doesn't have to release such information.

Such information is crucial, however, to determining whether or not the paper may be engaging in illegal activity. By law, say several legal experts, companies can't fire or otherwise punish workers for striking. And that's exactly what the Times would appear to be doing if there is no economic justification for the layoffs. The Times is reinforcing that image by insisting on protecting the jobs of workers who crossed the picket line as well as those hired during the strike.

The Newspaper Guild contends that it is entitled to financial information as part of the collective bargaining process. While the Times' Coughlin says that the union has all the information it needs to bring management's contract offer before a vote, Guild lawyer Kathy Barnard argues that the union can't take an informed position about the layoffs without economic data, including the paper's business plans for the last three years. As a result of the paper's stonewalling, Barnard was contemplating filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging bad-faith bargaining.

The Guild has had some success with the NLRB on prior complaints. In an under- reported press release last month, the board announced it had found "reasonable cause to believe that the Seattle Times has violated the National Labor Relations Act." The press release listed a range of alleged offenses by management—all of which have been denied by the Times—including threatening strikers with job loss, telling them that management will not "work with" strikers after the strike, and encouraging them to resign from the union.

But the board stopped short of dubbing the strike an "unfair labor practice strike," an important label because it protects strikers from losing their jobs. For such a label to apply, the board must hold that the paper not only engaged in unlawful behavior but, by doing so, prolonged the strike.

Now, with its latest complaint regarding withheld financial data, the Guild feels it has its most solid case yet for the "unfair labor practice" designation. "It doesn't require a huge investigation. They either gave us the information or they didn't," says union lawyer Barnard. And since the union can't proceed without such information, she argues, the strike has been prolonged.

If the union does get the numbers its after, it's not at all clear what they would show. One possibility is that there is an economic necessity for layoffs—but not because of the strike. University of Washington professor David Olson, who specializes in labor studies, observes that the Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are "battling for survival" in a tough marketplace, "threatened from the north by the Everett Herald, threatened from the east by the Eastside Journal, and threatened from the south by the Tacoma News Tribune." The Times' move earlier this year to morning circulation and direct competition with the P-I has heightened a sense among him and others that the city will be left with only one daily before long.

At the same time, Times publisher Frank Blethen has been under pressure from joint owner Knight-Ridder to increase what the chain considers to be a below-market profit margin. Knight-Ridder's preferred game plan would be to "reduce the head count," according to a Blethen memo, quoted by the Puget Sound Business Journal in November, after the newspaper chain waged an unsuccessful bid to acquire a controlling interest in the Times.

Times management has resisted such pressure. "We had no plans for staff reduction before the strike," says the Times' Sizemore. But when the strike occurred, management could have seen it as an opportunity. "Employers frequently will use a strike as a way of reducing labor costs," says the UW's Olson. And by laying off strikers over strikebreakers, the Times would weaken a troublesome union to boot.

Negotiations between the Guild and the Times will move to Washington, DC, this week at the request of US Senator Patty Murray, who also sat in on negotiation meetings in Seattle. Blethen and Sizemore will represent the Times at the meetings, marking the first time Blethen has taken an active role in negotiations.

The Times, which has announced plans to retain some 68 replacement workers as permanent employees, has warned that more may be granted permanent status if the strike continues. "Out of respect for the process, we're holding off," says Coughlin. "We'll have to take a look at where things are after this meeting."

 
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