They Used to Drive by Night | Bleader

Friday, November 5, 2010

They Used to Drive by Night

Posted By on 11.05.10 at 08:30 AM

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Layoffs continue at Sun-Times Media. This week five sportswriters were given notice at its Pioneer Press newspapers and two at its Doings papers. CEO Jeremy Halbreich says that a new centralized "media desk" makes consolidation possible — that and greater use of freelancers to cover prep sports. "We're not dropping sports," he says.

And Sun-Times Media laid off three of the four district managers in the Sun-Times circulation department. The fourth was reassigned to sales. Those moves were simply the other shoe falling — the managers had no one left to manage since October 18, when the Tribune, which already handled home delivery of the Sun-Times, also took over delivery to the boxes and retail outlets. The last two big assignments the district managers had were to tell the drivers they'd lost their jobs and then to hang around the phones for a couple of weeks until the new arrangement was running smoothly.

The Sun-Times cut loose 50 drivers last month — though 15 were picked up by the Tribune. Still at the Sun-Times are the 60 drivers in its "relay network": they drive the tractor-trailers that deliver bundled papers every night from the Sun-Times's printing plant on South Ashland to the Tribune's Freedom Center printing plant and to the Tribune agencies that handle home delivery.

Any great city is as romantic by night as by day, and the brightly colored vans that used to scurry through Chicago's dark and empty streets are now a missing piece of the romance. Jack Hurst, a laid-off driver, drove a route that took him through Lakeview and Uptown. He averaged about 180 stops; by 2:30 in the morning he'd be on his route and by 7:30 he'd be done. "I loved being out there at that time," he tells me. "There's hardly any traffic on the streets at the time. And now, since I've been working the same schedule 26 years, it's rough for me to get my sleeping time straightened out. There's a lot of the time I'm up to two o'clock in the morning."

Mesirow financier James Tyree demanded major concessions from all the Sun-Times Media Group unions a year ago before he'd buy the company and save its newspapers. Hurst's union, teamsters local 706, voted three times on Tyree's terms. The first vote ended in a tie and in the second vote the union rejected Tyree's terms. Halbreich invited the leadership of the recalcitrant unions into his office. "He sold us a bill of goods. It was an ultimatum," says teamsters steward Phil Dinida. "Originally, we thought they just wanted 15 percent of our salary, but it turned out to be 15 percent of everything. I didn't think they'd go after the benefits."

The bluntness of Halbreich's language can be seen in a letter he issued to all company employees around the same time. It said:

"If our union colleagues do not approve the required amendments, the Buyer will withdraw its bid to purchase the assets of the Company. And, they will do so for very understandable reasons since the Company will still be losing far too much money for any reasonable investor to underwrite. Neither you nor I would choose to invest our own monies any differently. No other bidder has emerged who will purchase our assets. If the current Buyer withdraws its bid, we will shortly run out of cash and we will be forced to shut down all of our publications and Web sites and liquidate the business. This will result in the loss of all 1,800-plus jobs across the Company."

A few days later the teamsters voted a third time, this time overwhelmingly in favor of giving Tyree his concessions. All the unions fell in line.

There was no talk then, say Hurst and Dinida, of more layoffs in the near future. Dinida tells me, "If they'd been up front and said, 'This is what the situation is — we have a buyer, but within a year we'll be out of the route delivery sevice business,' I think the membership would have thought, 'OK, that's time for me to start looking or to make a move to somewhere else.'" Instead, says Dinida, the company played a "cat and mouse game." There were six months of rumors that bosses would deny — "you had an inkling but you didn't want to believe it." The most troubling inklings came — as they often do — from the competition. Tribune managers knew about the big new load their drivers would soon assume — the Sun-Times sells a lot more papers in the city than the Tribune does — and, naturally enough, they gave their drivers a heads up. And the Tribune drivers, naturally enough, gave a heads up to the Sun-Times drivers, who belonged to the same union and, in many cases, the same families. By the time the Sun-Times formally announced what was happening in late September, any driver who wasn't in denial already knew.

Hurst says Halbreich "swore up and down that if you take the concessions there won't be any layoffs for at least three years. We gave them what they wanted, and in September they came out with a story saying everything was being turned over to Chicago Tribune, and that all the drivers will be gone."

On October 14, Hurst wrote Tyree:

Dear Mr. Tyree,

My name is Jack Hurst and I am a employee of the Chicago Sun-Times in which you own. I am upset that you are laid off all of the route drivers at the Sun-Times. I have been there for the past 26 years. In my 26 years employed at the Sun-Times I have never missed a day of work. I have been an excellent employee to work with. All of my co-workers, supervisors, and all owners of stores agree with me that the route drivers should stay employed at the Sun-Times. I would never thought that since you bought the company in October of 2009 that you would lay off all of the route drivers in 2010, one year later. Is there anyway that you can save the route drivers jobs like mine.

Sincerely a LIFETIME EMPLOYEE,

Jack C. Hurst

Tyree emailed a reply two days later.

Jack,

I understand your anger and disappointment. Based on all you've said I can't think of any other that could be more angry. I have also worked at the same place for a very long time (30 years) and have an expectation that I will be there forever. I wish that the world was such that the Sun Times could support their own distribution and that your job could be preserved as is forever.. Unfortunately Newspapers are slowly going the way of the "buggy whip" and we need to restructure the business in order to survive. One part of this is to combine our distribution with the Tribune. The Tribune will be hiring many of the Sun Times drivers. I hope with your great track record and performance that you are one of them. Thank you for reaching out to me through this email. I wish I could provide more than just this information in answer to you.

Jim

James C. Tyree
Chairman and CEO

Mesirow Financial

But Hurst didn't get one of the Tribune jobs. And he had no chance to stay on and drive a tractor-trailer. He doesn't have the right license for a rig that large.

Halbreich tells me that before Tyree could bring the company out of bankruptcy, the unions all had to sign three-year contracts containing the concessions Tyree needed, "But there was no language or commentary, no pledges or promises one way or another relating to layoffs."

Back then, I asked, did you see these layoffs coming?

"We did not," Halbreich says. "We put a plan together that obviously had some assumptions, and one was that the current business would still be soft. [But] business has been softer than we anticipated. If I had known that then, I'd have gladly told them."

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