Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Last Union Standing

Posted By on 10.15.09 at 08:07 AM

In 1975 the Chicago Typographical Union signed lifetime job guarantees with the Sun-Times and Tribune. At the dawn of the era in which the composing room would become obsolete, as newspapers turned to putting their pages together electronically, the dailies wanted the flexibility to shift their journeyman printers to other work. To get it, they guaranteed that these printers need never fear slashed wages and lost jobs.

The guarantee didn't bring peace in anyone's time. A 1985 printers strike against the Tribune over other issues led to lawsuits, a lockout, and federal mediation before the two sides made peace more than four years later.

In 1997, turmoil hit the Sun-Times. The 1975 agreement had been reiterated at that paper in a ten-year contract signed by that paper's new owners and the CTU in 1994. But the new owners were future felons Conrad Black and David Radler, and in 1997 they decided that time and age were not whittling the printers" ranks quickly enough. The number of printers on the Sun-Times's protected list, which CTU Local 16 president Steve Berman says had been about 460 in 1975 (there'd been more than 600 at the Tribune), was by this time down to 78, but the paper came up with a way of picking up the pace. Reassignment.

It was a tactic that soon drove Local 16 to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to charge the Sun-Times with age discrimination. The union said in a news release that beginning in early 1997 it "began to transfer composing room employees into other areas of the paper that were newly created.The new departments were designed to demoralize our journeyman printers by asking them to perform work, such as selling newspapers door to door." Several printers chose the alternative the company was offering, buyouts, "which is exactly what the company had expected would happen. The company then proceeded to hire new employees creating new job titles to perform the same exact work that our printers were performing prior to their transfer." Because the titles were new, the Sun-Times "was able to hire new, younger workers at more than half the wages and benefits. To further disguise their real motives, the company went as far as changing the names of departments."

In February 1998, the district director of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, John Rowe, weighed in. He said 25 Sun-Times printers, ranging in age from 50 to 74, had been told to knock on doors and peddle the paper, an assignment that "was highly undesirable inasmuch as the work was menial, compared to the skilled craft position of a printer, and entailed terms and conditions which were difficult and hazardous, such as extremes of temperature and weather and neighborhoods which were considered unsafe."

Rowe noted that the company transferred the "least senior," of the printers — i.e., the ones with the most years ahead of them at the paper. Though there were "numerous openings" that would have put the "skills and experience" of the printers to use — platemaking and engraving were two Rowe named — most of those jobs were filled with young new hires. Meanwhile, "15 printers...opted to request and accept the buyout."

The printers won that battle in arbitration, but as the years passed attrition continued. The last of the printers with lifetime job protection retired from the Tribune a few years ago, Berman says, and there are six printers left at the Sun-Times, their average age about 62.

As the Tribune has reported, these six theoretically hold the fate of the Sun-Times — make that the entire Sun-Times Media Group — in their hands. CTU Local 16 is the only STMG union that has not agreed to the terms set by financier Jim Tyree for buying the bankrupt company, and Tyree has said he requires unanimous union support.

Interim STMG CEO Jeremy Halbreich didn't see Local 16 as a problem, when I talked to him this week, and neither does Berman. "Our goal is to keep Chicago as a two-newspaper town and put all the anguish and worries to bed and get all this behind us," he tells me. "But we don’t want to be treated any different than the other union employees" Berman didn't even submit Tyree's first set of terms to the membership for a vote. Now he has revised language he doesn't want to talk about: "I'm not going to make any comments — we’re in some pretty serious discussions."

Of course, the printers are different. The Chicago Newspaper Guild's concerns about losing jurisdiction over the workplace aren't shared by the CTU, which surrendered its jurisdiction back in 1975. What it has is six jobs for life.

"I don’t view us as an adversary," says Berman. "We just want a fair and equitable agreement." Which is? "Continuation of employment." He points out that he also represents printers at another STMG daily, the Beacon News in Aurora. "We reached an agreement there," he says. In fact it was unanimous — four votes for Tyree, none against. "So it's not like we're standing in the way."

But Aurora's printers didn't have lifetime job guarantees. Those are a hard thing to put on the bargaining table.

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