Tuesday, March 19, 2013

As contract talks go nowhere, Sun-Times Media announces layoffs

Posted By on 03.19.13 at 10:00 AM

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  • Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times Media
Reporting on the latest layoffs at Sun-Times Media, the Monday Tribune focused on banished bosses such as Paulette Haddix, executive editor of the Post-Tribune, and Phil Arvia, sports editor for the SouthtownStar and Herald-News. In all, a dozen jobs were lost, and here's a name that didn't make the Tribune story: Dave Roknic, who's a Sun-Times copy editor.

More to the point, he is, or was, one of three Sun-Times employees on the negotiating committee of the Chicago Newspaper Guild that's now mired in contract talks with Sun-Times Media that are going nowhere. (The Reader is owned by Sun-Times Media but it is not unionized and it is not a party to the negotiations.) And on Monday, another of the three Sun-Times negotiators, business writer Dave Roeder, started a new job that takes him out of the union. He's now working for the Grid, a new weekly created to supply the Sun-Times with business news. The Grid is owned by Wrapports LLC, parent company of Sun-Times Media, but it's not a part of Sun-Times Media. Roeder and two other Sun-Times business writers accepted job offers at the Grid after being told their old jobs would no longer exist.

Dave Pollard, a Pioneer Press reporter who's president of the Chicago guild, called the loss of Roeder and Roknic "union busting." The guild was greatly weakened by a "memorandum of understanding" it signed with Sun-Times Media in 2009 to keep the company alive; even so, says Pollard, the guild is considering going to court to challenge management's right to unilaterally eliminate Roeder's guild-covered job and put him in a new one that isn't. "We're not taking it lightly," Pollard tells me.

Roeder doesn't quarrel with the idea behind the Grid, which is to make it a magazine that might attract new advertising and also might expand into other cities."I think the idea has some potential," he says. "I'm glad they’re exploring some new ideas for advertising. Advertising is awful. But these jobs ought to be in the Newspaper Guild."

He feels that so strongly that on Tuesday, when a bargaining session was scheduled, he intended to show up anyway and bargain for the union as if he were still a member of it. He had no idea if the management team would try to throw him out.

Jim Kirk, editor in chief of the Sun-Times Media papers, rejects Dave Pollard's accusation. "It's absolutely not about union busting at all," he told me Monday afternoon. "We absolutely deny that charge. We're becoming a digital-first company, and we need to make adjustments to get there."

Contract negotiations always stir up animosities, and the current vintage wasn't assuaged by CEO Tim Knight's staff memo Friday announcing the layoffs. It began with a burst of jargon and jubilation:

As we proactively transform our Sun-Times Media operation to align with the current and future digital customer reality, we have been able to create an incredible amount of upside for our people. We have armed employees with technologies that help them to work smarter, faster and better and have given them career development opportunities that have not existed at this company in the past.

But down in paragraph three of the four-paragraph memo, Knight got to the point. "As part of this transition, however, we have had to make some very difficult personnel decisions," Knight revealed. "These decisions were based on the changing needs of the business. One outcome is that some employees have not made the transition with us."

There's no good way to announce that colleagues are losing their jobs. But among the not-so-good ways is tucking it behind blithe assertions of an "incredible upside" and tossing off the doleful news with a not-everyone-gets-to-make-it-to-the-promised-land shrug.

The layoffs follow a Sun-Times Media decision to consolidate the editing functions of the company's far-flung newspapers at the Sun-Times at 350 N. Orleans, an edict that galled suburban employees who would now face long daily commutes and Sun-Times staffers who would now have to work cheek by jowl with strangers. The guild's response to this move was to revise its contract proposals to incorporate a single pay scale for all of Sun-Times Media's guild papers.

According to the guild website, "the company's team expressed incredulity at our revision."

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