Tribune Reporters Buckle Down for a Fight 

Editorial employees insist on a better contract, but will the slow economy hinder their arguments?

A funeral was held in the newsroom of the Oakland Tribune recently. Present were many of the newspaper's writers and editors, who emerged from their low-walled cubbies and made their way to a velvet-covered bier. Inside a shoebox coffin was a document sporting a cheery yellow paper jacket: a copy of the just-expired union contract between the editorial employees of the Alameda Newspaper Group and its owners.

The officiator, a Trib staff writer dressed up in a mortician's dark blazer, began the ceremony. "We have gathered to say good-bye to our Little Yellow Book," he intoned, but was cut off by immediate wailing. "It's so horrible," someone cried out in mock agony as others snickered. "I just saw it yesterday!" The undertaker paused for the "grief" to subside. "This Little Yellow Book of ours was flawed, surely," he continued. "But let us not speak ill of the dead." As the last photos were snapped of the open casket, he concluded: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Then, fist in the air: "Contract now, solidarity forever!"

The folks in the Trib newsroom and in some of the other newsrooms that make up the ANG chain are both relieved and anxious that their contract with the company has just expired. Negotiated with the help of the Northern California Media Workers Guild, the contract took a painful twelve years to write, and, when it was signed in 1998, the result was widely seen as one of the worst in the industry. The contract established a merit pay system, with tiny minimum yearly raises of between .67 and 1.5 percent. And the newsroom remained an open shop in which union membership was voluntary.

Guild representative Erin Poh, who has been working with the ANG employees, admits that the contract they achieved in 1998 was substandard in comparison to contracts at other dailies. That's why, in this new round of negotiations, the union and membership have proposed scrapping the old contract entirely. "Our proposal for the contract is a complete reworking," Poh says. "[The contract that just expired] was an extremely weak contract, and we're not an extremely weak unit now. We're not a product of a twelve-year malaise. The members want a wholesale revision."

But the sweeping revision that members are seeking is completely at odds with what the union says the company has put on the table. ANG brass would not answer questions for this story -- Senior Vice President of Human Resources Robert Jendusa would only say, "We will not comment on ongoing negotiations." In an internal memo to the ANG employees, however, Jendusa blamed the guild for dragging out the negotiations, which have been underway since June. "You should know that the Company is committed to bargaining in good faith toward reaching a contract that will be fair for both sides," he wrote, "[but] progress has been slow. The Guild's effort to abandon the old language and rewrite an entirely new agreement has made these negotiations harder than necessary."

"The company had a one-page proposal that included taking away overtime after eight hours, and also proposed taking discipline and termination out of the union," Poh says of ANG's offer at the bargaining table. "The single greatest benefit a union contract offers is a grievance process."

It's late on a Saturday evening, but reporter Sean Holstege is still in the office, sipping strong-as-hell coffee out of a cup etched with the remnants of fuel for a thousand stories. The room is quiet now; the 68,000-circulation Trib is put out by a skeleton staff on weekends, and only the copy desk shows any signs of life. Holstege is the unit chair for the ANG bargaining unit, which includes 200 reporters, photographers, copy editors, graphics staffers, and lower-level editors in four of the papers that make up the ANG chain, which is owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group. (Its other papers are the Alameda Times-Star, the Hayward Daily Review, the Fremont Argus, the Tri-Valley Herald, and the San Mateo Valley Times. The Vallejo Times-Herald and the Marin Independent Journal are also in the chain, but not in the bargaining unit.)

Like Poh, Holstege is quick to point out that the discussion is not all about salary, although he believes the payscale is subpar. He's also astonished at the company's proposal to eliminate the union's grievance process.

"[Management wants] full and sole authority to discipline anyone it wants," Holstege says. "But that's the whole point. That's why we signed the contract in the first place: Even though the benefits weren't what they could be and the tone of the language was horrible, at least we could protect people. That's why we said, 'This is a painful thing, but we need to sign.'"

Holstege has been a reporter at the Trib for six years, which makes him something of an old-timer in the newsroom. Usually, he says, staffers stay at the paper only until something better comes along. Bob Gammon is another Trib staff writer. He's worked with ANG for three and a half years, working at the smaller Hayward Daily Review until a job opening at the flagship Tribune pulled him to Oakland.

"All the papers in the chain have a tremendously high turnover rate," he says. "We can't keep people because we can't pay wages that support them so that people can actually afford to live here. People come here and see it as a place to move on from, and they do. We have inexperienced people coming in and trying to learn beats over and over again, and inexperienced copy editors that aren't aware of style points. That leads to mistakes."

As for pay, "The average salary at ANG, last time we checked, was $30,000," Holstege says. "The starting salary for reporters has been $26,000. Top reporters, some of them, make more than $40,000; some don't. Who makes more than others is an artifact of favoritism," he says. Pay is not based on experience either, so cub reporters who have been with the company for three years can earn more than thirty-year veterans.

Holstege says he isn't worried about working without a contract, and realizes it might be a while before a new one is hashed out. "Nobody's going to get a pay cut," he says. "We're not going to lose our vacation. The pre-existing conditions are going to apply, but certain things are going to be gone, and the most important of those is job security." Solidarity is strong in the newsroom, Holstege says, with the union membership rate at all the ANG newsrooms topping 70 percent. Most of the computer monitors in the Trib newsroom sport bright green signs bearing the words, "Raise Our Standards."

But at a time when newspapers everywhere -- independents as well as members of chains -- are facing declining ad revenue and are, in turn, laying off editorial staff, slashing budgets, and shrinking in size, isn't it risky to demand an increase in workplace benefits? Poh isn't convinced. "This company has been a cash cow for a really long time. They have lowballed wages and have a huge circulation. [Owner] Dean Singleton and MediaNews Group have made a significant amount of money. We haven't seen any reinvestment into the community or into ANG. So would I buy them pleading poor at this point? No, I wouldn't."

"It's no secret that [the company] is doing well," Gammon says. "They can't claim otherwise. But that doesn't make any difference to them. They're in it to make a profit, a large profit. They could care less about the problems that their profit-driven [motivations cause]."

Guild President Carl Hall is a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, which, by the way, has what is usually seen as an excellent contract. He admits that, although the company remains very profitable, the recent economic downturn will make the union's argument harder. "The economic climate is always a factor," Hall says. "It certainly figures into collective bargaining, no matter if it's a newspaper, BART, or any other employer. A period of economic weakness works to the employer's advantage and hurts the union's bargaining position."

Holstege, along with many of his colleagues, might be prepared for a lengthy negotiation process, but he's not prepared to back down from his view of what the contract should achieve. "The first contract was a building block," he says. "We accepted it. I mean, it was a terrible contract. But we took it because it was better than no contract at all. And we took it because it was a building block and a first step to what we're negotiating now."

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