The Sun-Times wants to eliminate more than 30 Chicago Newspaper Guild jobs, and when guild leaders and union officials met Monday to begin discussions of how this should be done or might even be avoided, emotions ran high. They peaked on the subject of two employees whose jobs are safe. That’s because James Smith, a page designer, and Garry Steckles, an editor — both recent hires — were just promoted to exempt positions by editor in chief Michael Cooke, thus getting them out from under language in the guild contract that protects members according to seniority. Cooke “was at the meeting. His basic position was ‘I can promote whoever I want,’  and he was pretty arrogant about it,” says Gerald Minkkinen, executive director of the CNG. “The subject of exempting his buddies and making others vulnerable was a matter of considerable discussion. We were pretty angry about it.”

Minkkinen concedes that Smith is, by reputation, a superior designer who distinguished himself at the Sun-Times Media Group’s daily in Joliet before coming to the Sun-Times. But Steckles was a mystery to him. Not to me, however. A couple years ago I had a couple of long phone conversations with Steckles, who described himself to me as a restaurant owner in Saint Kitts who served Cooke as the Ed McMahon to his Johnny Carson. “I help out wherever he needs me,” said Steckles, and whenever Cooke doesn’t, Steckles lays low. “I don’t miss it when I’m lying on a beach in the Caribbean,” he said about the newspaper biz, “But I always enjoy doing it when I get the chance.”

To Cooke, Steckles is a friend so old he’s comfort food. “Michael’s from Lancashire — ” Steckles told me, “[from] a little village outside Lancaster. He grew up on back lanes with outside toilets. I did as well. It was cold and rough. Michael started work at 16.” They both entered journalism, went to Canada, and worked on papers together in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. When the New York Daily News hired Cooke  away from the Sun-Times three years ago to be its editor, Steckles thought he would become the Daily News‘s Sunday editor. But Cooke didn’t stay in New York long enough for that to happen. By the end of 2005 he was back in Chicago as the Sun-Times group’s vice president of editorial operations. When Cooke decided to turn Waukegan’s News-Sun into a prototypical tabloid, he summoned Steckles from Saint Kitts and James Smith from Joliet to help him do it.

“Michael realized James is a major talent,” Steckles told me back in 2006. “He has all the flair of a terrific graphics designer but also a great sensitivity for newspapers.” In another conversation, Steckles called Smith “absolutely brilliant,” and said that by the time he got to Waukegan Smith had pretty much wrapped up the design work, leaving it to Steckles “to pull together editorial.” Pretty clearly, Steckles thought of himself and Cooke and Smith as a wonderful team, and apparently Cooke thinks the same. Gerald Minkkinen says Cooke kept Steckles “under the radar” as a Sun-Times “consultant,” and when the guild pointed out that the guild contract didn’t provide for consultants, he put Steckles on staff last fall in a guild job. I caught up with Steckles briefly Tuesday and he allowed that “I haven’t really had a title” other than consultant. But for the time being I could call him a “copy editor for the Showcase” if I wished, though that will change “under the new scheme of things” to something he can’t yet disclose.

The guild is entitled to two weeks of talks before the Sun-Times can lop heads. On Monday night the Sun-Times‘s guild members met to “brainstorm” — Minkkinen’s word — possible alternatives to the layoffs. Buyouts — which the paper hadn’t mentioned — were one, and Minkkinen said he’d like to keep the others under his hat. By the time I got to work Tuesday morning an anonymous guild member had left me a steaming voice mail message. He told me about the two employees Cooke was protecting and he said the staff was “incensed and flabbergasted at such a shameless injustice.”

The goal of the Sun-Times Media Group is to cut costs by $50 million and thereby turn a profit and stay in business. At another of its properties, Pioneer Press, publisher Larry Green wrote a staff memo Monday that began: “Today we notified the Chicago Newspaper Guild that we would be eliminating 4 positions in the Pioneer Press editorial department before the end of January.” In addition to these four guild positions are two that were held by guild members who recently quit and won’t be replaced and four non-guild positions held by editors who’ll be let go. “An additional five positions will be eliminated at the Lake County News-Sun [the paper Steckles and Smith overhauled in 2006]. An additional 16 full and part-time positions are being eliminated in the circulation department.”

Green said Pioneer Press was closing three northwest-side city papers “where subscriptions and advertising have been weak.” But the “suburban titles remain strong,” he told his staff, and vowed that he’s “committed to maintaining our unique strength as suburban Chicago’s premiere sources of local news.”

“More with less” I suppose.