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US newspaper owners ratchet up pressure on organized labor (MS)

Newspaper owners across the country are using dire warnings and, in some cases, blunt threats about economic survival to press unions to make concessions on wages, benefits, and work rules. And it’s working.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, the California Media Workers Guild, which represents editorial and commercial workers, gave up pay raises, a week of vacation, and seniority rules for layoffs about month after owner Hearst Corp. of New York threatened to sell or close the paper if it could not cut costs.

Members of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild in Seattle will vote today on accepting a wage freeze and two weeks of unpaid furloughs just several weeks after management of the privately held Seattle Times laid out a dire financial situation. In Portland, Maine, union leaders have agreed to wage cuts in exchange for a 15 percent employee stake in the Portland Press Herald after the likely buyer said concessions were necessary to save the paper.

The paper’s current owner, the Blethen family, which also controls the Seattle Times, said in a court filing last year that it might have to shut the paper if it could not sell it.

"If you’re a union person, you have to take these threats seriously," said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The businesses right now have close to zero value as operating concerns."

Growing losses at The Boston Globe recently led its owner, The New York Times Co., to threaten to shutter the newspaper unless unions agree to $20 million in concessions, which could include pay cuts, reduced retirement contributions, and elimination of lifetime job guarantees to about 430 workers.

Union leaders and members at the Globe have said they’re willing to make concessions if management shares in the pain. In a memo to employees this week, Globe publisher P. Steven Ainsley said the company would squeeze additional savings from nonunion managers, who have already taken pay cuts and had their ranks thinned by about 20 percent.

Threatening to shutter plants and businesses is certainly not a new negotiating tactic, said Robert Forrant, a University of Massachusetts at Lowell professor who studies industrial history. It was used frequently in New England in the 20th century as traditional manufacturers were moving operations to lower-cost, nonunion plants in the South.

But even after unions made concessions, the plants ended up closing anyway, Forrant said. The reason: The concessions don’t address the underlying problems driving the industries’ decline.

"You give back wages, and the structural problems remain," Forrant said.

Newspapers, already struggling as readers and advertisers migrate online, have been hard hit by the recession. Dailies in Philadelphia and Minneapolis have filed for bankruptcy, as have chains including Tribune Co., which publishes the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Hartford Courant, and Journal Register Co., publisher of the New Haven Registerand several small dailies.

In San Francisco, there was little doubt Hearst would follow through on its threat to shut or sell the paper, said Michael Cabanatuan, president of the California Media Guild. Hearst was already moving to stop publishing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which became an online-only operation last month. Union members also knew the financial situation of the Chronicle, which was losing money when they negotiated a contract four years ago, wasn’t getting better.

Guild members voted 333 to 33 to freeze their wages, give up a week’s vacation, and extend the workweek to 40 hours from 37.5. They also agreed to give up seniority rights in exchange for severance pay for workers who get laid off. Severance pay was not in the contract before.

"We knew they weren’t hiding piles of money," Cabanatuan said. "We believed it was possible they could pull the plug, and we negotiated the best deal we could."

In Seattle, there were no threats, but the company made it clear its survival was at stake, said Jill Mackie, spokeswoman for the Seattle Times. "The economics here may be as severe" as in Boston, she said.

The Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild has already agreed to a pension freeze, meaning the company won’t make additional contributions to the plan. Today, members will vote on giving up two scheduled 1.5 percent pay raises and taking one week of unpaid furlough this year and next.

"It’s not easy to do. It hurts," said Liz Brown, theunion’s administrative officer."Our hope is that it will help preserve the paper."

In Portland, Maine, the likely buyer of the Press Herald, a group led by Richard Connor, a Bangor, Maine, native and publisher of the Times Leader of Wilkes Barre, Pa., said it needed concessions from unions to make the sale financially possible. Tom Bell, president of the Portland Newspaper Guild, said union leaders negotiated wage cuts in exchange for an ownership stake for employees and two seats on the board of directors.

Bell declined to detail the cuts since the proposal has not been presented to members. The sale is expected to be finalized over the next few weeks, according to a spokesman for Connor.

"This will change the relationship between union and management by making us owners," Bell said. "We need everybody to be thinking like entrepreneurs now."

Robert Gavin can be reached at