Nonunion Employees to Guild at the Post-Tribune: What About Us? | Bleader

Friday, October 2, 2009

Nonunion Employees to Guild at the Post-Tribune: What About Us?

Posted By on 10.02.09 at 01:15 PM

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The fault line between the union and nonunion employees of the Sun-Times Media Group couldn't be clearer than it now appears to be at the Post-Tribune, the group's daily in Lake County, Indiana.

This week almost the entire nonunion staff of that paper signed a letter to the union staff that closed with the blunt observation, "SAVING YOUR JOB ALSO SAVES OUR JOB."

It began: "With only days left until we actually know our fate, We are asking each one of you to think long and hard, about the decision you will make regarding concessions that will affect us all. Unlike the Union Employees of STNG, the Non-Union employees were not given a choice about concessions. Some of us took pay cuts of up to 50%. Our choice was to accept the pay cut or to leave. If we chose to leave we would not receive any unemployment compensation."

Here's a link to the entire letter.

The only known bidder for the assets of the bankrupt media is James Tyree of Mesirow Financial, heading a group of 36 investors. Speaking to the employees primarily through interim CEO Jeremy Halbreich, Tyree has given the unions terms that amount to telling them to gut themselves, and told them that unless they unanimously agree to these terms he'll back out. The STMG assets will be auctioned off October 7 in bankruptcy court, and Tyree's already made the opening bid — $5 million plus the assumption of a little over $20 million in debts. No other bidders are expected.

All five Newspaper Guild units that bargain with the STMG have rejected Tyree's terms by lopsided margins, and the Post-Tribune's was the first to act, voting 17 to 1 against them on September 14.

The letter to the union was written by Kelsey Perry, an account executive in the Post-Tribune's retail advertising department, which is the only department of any size outside the newsroom to survive the media group's massive retrenchment. Perry tells me she took her letter around Monday and collected 27 signatures, meaning almost the entire nonunion rank and file at the paper. Somebody didn't sign for religious reasons, and two others "because they felt sorry for the union people," Perry tells me. And there were a few people she didn't have a chance to approach.

She doesn't feel sorry for the media group's Guild members, who in Marchearlier this year agreed to a 15 percent, supposedly temporary pay cut and are now being told by Tyree that he intends to make it permanent. In conversation, Perry's a lot blunter than her letter. "We can't believe these people are that ridiculous and are not willing to make concessions," she says. "I personally have taken a 50 percent pay cut. I head up real estate, and they gave numbers to me that were unattainable, and if I didn't meet 80 percent of that goal I only got half pay. If over all, the real estate market is down 20-some percent, how did they expect me to make these goals? I can live with that. I know real estate will come back. But when you ask somebody to take a 15 percent pay cut and live without seniority — we don't have seniority."

She says, "We are all very grateful to Jim Tyree. We think this is a wonderful thing he's doing. He's throwing us a lifeline we desperately need. These idiots are waiting for a party boat and there isn't a party boat coming."

The staff of the Post-Tribune is down to 60 or so people, though I'm told that just a couple of years ago it was around 250. "Our circulation department is gone," says retail sales assistant Kathleen Elwood, who signed Perry's letter. "Our finance department is gone. Most of our graphics artists are gone — that was outsourced to the Philippines. Fiinance is in Tinley Park now. We're delivered by the Tribune. Our classified department was outsourced three or four months ago to call centers in New York and Aurora."

And the printing's done by the plant on South Ashland Avenue that prints the Sun-Times. "All we are is an office building with a staff," says Perry. And there's a For Sale sign out in front of the office building, which is in Merrillville. Andy Grimm, president of the Post-Tribune's guild unit, has talked up the idea of the employees making an ESOP bid for the Post-Tribune and taking it over, but neither Perry nor Elwood takes that idea seriously — in part because there are so few employees. "We're pretty much a shell right now," says Perry. "Where would they print it?"

After she'd collected her signatures, Perry put her letter in an envelope and put the envelope on Grimm's desk. She said Friday she's still waiting to hear from him. The reaction came from STMG management. She faxed a copy of her letter to Ted Rilea, the vice president of labor relations. On Wednesday STMG issued a news release announcing it.

"If I were buying these newspapers and there's one paper holding out," says Perry, meaning one union at one paper, "I would fire them. You know what, they're troublemakers. If 37-some people can disrupt the lives of 1,800 — how do you do that!"

She's saying Tyree should buy the Post-Tribune and fire the newsroom. Perry likes working at the Post-Tribune and she has faith in its future: she believes that once the company's out of bankruptcy the Post-Tribune can make a comeback because northwest Indiana is such a rich region for news and the Chicago papers barely cover it. In other words, her fire-the-reporters idea doesn't make a lot of sense. It does express her exasperation.

Andy Grimm indicates to me that at least as far as he's concerned, the ESOP idea is still alive.

UPDATE: Here's Grimm's response to Perry:

“I’d just like to say to the folks on the other side of the building that we’re really not idiots over here in the union. We understand the great opportunity Mr. Tyree’s bid represents for our company, and we’re all very worried about our jobs, too. Yes, we voted down the contract terms that were proposed, but in the same resolution, we voted to open negotiations with the company to try to find terms that can ensure a future for the Post-Tribune. Our letter to the company is posted in the newsroom, next to Ms. Perry’s petition. We voted in favor of the pay cut in May, and we’re willing to come to the table at any time to talk about concessions that will protect jobs at the Post-Tribune and the rest of the Sun-Times Media Group.”

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