IN A DRAMATIC REVERSAL, the Providence Newspaper Guild and the Providence Journal are on the verge of ending a bitter labor dispute that lingered and flared for almost four years, exacting a harsh toll with a largely behind-the-scenes battle at Rhode Islandís leading media institution.
A stepped-up campaign by the Guild in recent months to encourage management to return to the negotiating table ó including a $20,000 radio-advertising blitz backed by the Communications Workers of America, and a December 10 public forum at City Hall by a self-styled labor watchdog group ó showed no initial signs of success. But a December 15 negotiating session at the Journal came out of the blue, and the Guildís executive committee voted afterward, nine-to-one, to recommend an improved contract offer to its membership. After the Guild rejected in June the ProJoís most recent pitch, on a 160-to-109 vote, approval of the new pact seems likely during daylong voting scheduled for Friday, December 19.
After about 450 reporters, photographers, and other union members have worked without a contract ó or raises ó since early 2000, a contract agreement is bound to give a major boost to morale at the Journal. It also represents a major triumph for the Guild, whose members have steadily contended that the Journal, which lost its status as a locally owned paper when the Dallas-based Belo Corporation acquired it in 1997, was intent on crippling the union.
Yet despite the promise of better vibes, many veterans remain troubled by what they describe as a wasteful, hurtful, and unnecessary dispute. "I think thereís more relief here than anything," says metro columnist Bob Kerr, a member of the Guildís executive committee. "[But] I just feel it never had to happen ó the last four years never had to happen. A lot of damage has been done thatís not going to go away with this contract. A lot of good people have needlessly been hurt. That sort of plants a seed of distrust about the company thatís not going to go away quickly. Thatís very sad. My only hope is that management takes a hard look at what happened here and tries to make sure it never happens again."
Adds a reporter who requested anonymity, "This didnít need to go four years. No one is under any illusion that these are nice people [in management], or that the old ownership is back." Similarly, an agreement is unlikely to reverse any of the cost-cutting moves ó such as the closing in 2002 of the Newport bureau ó that would have been unthinkable when the Metcalfs regarded the paper as a family trust.
Journal publisher Howard G. Sutton, who has made a practice of not talking with the Phoenix, didnít return a call seeking comment. Executive editor Joel P. Rawson, declined to comment, and Richard A. Perras, a lawyer with Edwards & Angell, who helped to represent the ProJo in contract talks, didnít return a call seeking comment.
One of the most intriguing questions is why management suddenly became more flexible, particularly on the heels of the Guildís radio advertising campaign and the City Hall hearing by the Workersí Rights Board, a self-styled labor watchdog group. The sudden turnabout has sparked rumors that the Journal might be for sale ó a prospect previously discounted by newspaper analyst John Morton because of the newspaperís value as a franchise ó but it seems likely that guilty findings on 27 unfair labor practice charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board were a factor. (The Journal has appealed the NLRBís rulings.) "Nobody seems to be able to figure it out," Kerr says, referring to managementís change of heart in negotiating. "Whether it was pressure from Belo, which I think must have played some role," the looming NLRB charges, or something else, "probably the best result of this is that the Guild is intact. We did this right. We followed all the right steps."
As part of the proposed agreement, an NLRB judge would not have to vacate the convictions, "but the contract would be contingent on action by the National Labor Relations Boardís regional office in Boston," according to a report on Guild Leader, the Guildís online newsletter (www.riguild.org). The contract would replace the remedies ordered by the judge in the case, and the pactís implementation would require action by the NLRB.
Other elements of the prospective deal include retroactive raises of 0 percent for 2000, 3 percent for 2001, 0 percent for 2002, and 6 percent for 2003. The company is offering a signing bonus of $1000 for Guild members who work 22.5 hours a week or more, and $500 for those who work less. On average, the union says, Guild members will receive 73 percent of the back raises they would have gotten had they received the same raises as nonunion workers from 2000 to the end of 2003. The contract also guarantees no less than 8 percent in cumulative wages over the four-year life of the proposed deal. The contract would be retroactive to January 2000 and continue until December 2007.
"Basically, I think itís time to put this thing behind us, and a lot of people feel that way," says political reporter Scott MacKay. The contract might not be perfect, he adds, but itís reasonable. "I see people like Karen Ziner with a smile on her face for the first time in two years."
Ziner, a respected veteran who was unceremoniously reassigned from a domestic violence story following a complaint from a source in 2001, might most personify how, as Guild members see it, Belo-backed management has offered shabby treatment to many Journal staffers. In April, an NLRB judge found that Zinerís reassignment to the night police beat, after colleagues protested her departure from the domestic violence story, was illegal and designed to punish her. NLRB judge William G. Kocol also found that the testimony in the case of metro/managing editor Tom Heslin, who helped to direct the ProJoís Pulitzer-winning coverage of a state court scandal in 1994, lacked credibility.
Although Ziner, in an e-mail to the Phoenix, raps managementís offer as less than fair, she adds, "Itís a tribute to Guild members that we hung in there, lured the company back to the table, and squeezed a little more out of them. Courage and pressure tactics work, albeit in the 11th hour. My guess is that they canít tolerate any more radio ads about the Journalís own scandal, or leafletting at major advertisers, and civil disobedience marching through the front doors."
The last description refers to how hundreds of visiting Communications Workers of America led a charge into the Journal building, including the newsroom, during a November 6 protest. The situation went unmentioned in the ProJo, reflecting how the paper, which takes seriously transgressions by politicians and disputes involving Rhode Island companies, uses different standards in covering itself. Because of this ability to control the flow of news ó and influence Rhode Islandís broadcast media ó relatively few Rhode Islanders are even aware of the dramatic struggle that has played out at the stateís dominant news entity in recent years.
Some veterans question whether younger staffers would have had the conviction to wait out the dispute. Itís no coincidence that the Guild last year recognized WPRI-TV reporter Jack White, who as a ProJo reporter, held what would become a Pulitzer-winning story about tax cheating by Richard Nixon, to honor a 1973 strike at the newspaper. (Disclosure: Iím a semi-regular, unpaid guest on Whiteís Sunday morning show, Newsmakers.) Nonetheless, Guild partisans hold out the recent progress as evidence of what solidarity can achieve.
"I hope this helps reverse a trend in the newspaper industry of taking whatever is offered as Ďthe best we can get.í " Sheila Lennon, the paperís features and interactive producer, writes in an e-mail. "It took four years, but this contract is a lot better than the companyís earlier Ďtake it or leave ití offers . . . We never damaged the Journal, we just used the law to hold them to the same standards they require of the rest of Rhode Islandís companies."
John Hill, who became Guild president earlier this year, and helped to implement the unionís stepped-up tactics, says, "One of the things we were fighting for just beyond the monetary value, we were fighting for the journalistic integrity of the institution. I really think we have a much longer view than they do [in management] . . . You protect the quality of the paper, because the people who make it something worth buying are our members. Weíre the ones who sell the ads, the ones who write the stories, the ones who take the pictures. By us protecting that contract, I think in the long run weíre protecting the quality of the Providence Journal, and the reason that people are willing to pay 50 cents for it is because of the things that our people do for it."
Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ phx.com .
Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003
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