Credit: Richard A. Chapman/ Sun-Times

When last we looked in on the tumultuous marriage of Sun-Times Media and the Chicago Newspaper Guild, the union—in either sense of the word—was hanging by a thread. It was October of 2009, and an investment group led by financier James Tyree had just snatched the bankrupt company from the jaws of death. The guild did its bit by agreeing to draconian terms that let Tyree abolish any work rule he thought stood in the way of survival.

“The requests on our part just stunned the union, and if I were in their shoes I would be, too,” Tyree told me then.

“Is it worth it to keep a job and lose everything else you’re fighting for?” wondered Lynne Stiefel, a Pioneer Press reporter who was then president of the guild. But Tyree tweaked his terms a little (as Stiefel would put it, he dabbed a little lipstick on the pig), and the guild went along.

“My recommendation was clear,” the guild’s executive director, Tom Thibeault, told me afterward. “Hold your nose and vote for it. It’s a crappy agreement but it’s the best we can get and there’ll be another day left to fight.”

Three years later, that day has come. The “memorandum of understanding” the guild and Sun-Times Media signed in 2009 expired in October, though most of its wildly one-sided terms remain in force until new ones are negotiated. And since last August the two parties have been meeting to decide what those new terms shall be.

The cast of characters is largely new. Tyree died in March of 2011 and Wrapports LLC, a new investment group led by Michael Ferro, now runs the company. (Wrapports also owns the Reader, whose employees aren’t guild members.) Stiefel left the company in May of that year; Dave Pollard, also a Pioneer Press reporter, is now the Chicago guild’s president. And Thibeault left Chicago and was succeeded by Craig Rosenbaum as the guild’s executive director. These changes are one reason why the two sides started off by trying something different. Assisted by a federal mediator, their negotiating teams met in off-the-record sessions in which they could set public posturing aside and get to know each other. I asked Rosenbaum the other day if progress was made. “Not as much as we had hoped,” he said. “Both sides have a better sense of where we are, but it’s not a good process for negotiating economic issues, so we aborted when we came to economics.” And when the two sides reverted to traditional bargaining on December 14, Timothy Knight, the CEO of Sun-Times Media, allowed in a memo to the STM staff that “while I had hoped that we would be able to come to an agreement,” they hadn’t.

There’s never been a guild strike at the Sun-Times but ornery negotiations have frequently gone to the brink, and as someone who many years ago held a minor guild office at the Sun-Times, I confess to some relief at seeing the two sides go back to sounding more like their old selves.

Knight issued a vision of the glittering future that an enlightened management and sensible workforce could achieve by striving in concert. “Wrapports is making major investments to give Sun-Times properties access to new content and new technology to reach readers beyond print,” said Knight’s memo. “These initiatives have already begun attracting new readership and new advertising clients. . . . Hundreds of Sun-Times employees are working extremely hard to turn this business around.. . . The changes we face may be immense, but together, I am confident that we can successfully transform the company into a thriving and future-focused business.”

When the guild cleared its throat, it was to express a truculent resentment at being—in its view—played for suckers. The guild’s website told the rank and file that management’s “offer” consisted of a “new, lower-paid classification of reporters, photographers, designers and copy editors” earning as little as $13.50 per hour, overtime pay only after completion of a ten-hour workday, and renewal of the 2009 memo of understanding that “cut our pay a minimum of 15 percent . . . and which cut our job security by eliminating most of the jurisdiction and seniority protections embedded in our contracts.”

In short, “The Company thus told us that it does not care enough about us to restore our pay to 2009 levels. It told us that it has no intention of returning money we gave up in order to save it. . . . Three years later, with new owners who say they are pouring money into making Wrapports/Sun Times Media a success, the Company has told us that we are not worth any of that money.”

This, needless to say, is a message the company would not agree it has sent. In the words of its chief negotiator, the task at hand is still “to turn the ship around.” If the ship doesn’t sink, that’s ample reward for the crew’s seamanship.

The 2009 memorandum of understanding gave management a free hand to transfer any employee in any classification anywhere. And both Tyree, and Ferro after him, talked of the savings to be had by consolidating the company’s far-flung editorial forces. But the other shoe didn’t drop until the morning of December 20, when Jim Kirk, editor in chief of the Sun-Times Media papers, announced a reorganization that will concentrate the editing of all Sun-Times Media papers at headquarters in the Apparel Center and close the outlying offices.

Shell-shocked.” That’s how the guild website describes its negotiating team’s reaction to Kirk’s announcement. Minutes after the announcement, a negotiating session already scheduled for that day began; according to the website, Ted Rilea, the vice president of labor relations who heads Sun-Times Media’s negotiating team, “made it clear that this changes everything.”

Rilea, the old hand at the table, having negotiated contracts for 20 years and four different sets of owners, tells me he knew what was coming, and asserts—as he surely will to the guild—that it reflects “advancements in digital technology that we can now offer our employees.”

The immediate impact of Kirk’s announcement was to shift, from the realm of hypothesis to the realm of harsh reality, the company’s power to make guild members stationed in places like Gary, Indiana (Sun-Times Media’s Post-Tribune), Joliet (its Herald-News), and Glenview (Pioneer Press headquarters) relocate downtown. It underlined the obsolescence of old jurisdictional boundaries and solidified management’s view that to work for one paper is to work for them all. And it reinforced the case the guild makes for a single contract covering every guild employee in the company. In the past there was one contract for the Sun-Times, another for Pioneer Press, yet others for the Post-Tribune, Herald-News, and other guild papers.

“The sea change Jim Kirk announced will transform the landscape in which we work,” says the guild’s website. “It doesn’t mean the company is free of its obligation to end the Memorandum of Understanding; to restore our lost wages and make us whole; to recognize our rights to job security through restored seniority and jurisdiction provisions.”

“Make us whole” has a wishful ring in an era that’s turned print journalism generally into a stretcher case. At any rate, there’s nothing legal or contractual about the obligation the guild claims the company is under. The guild’s making the point that it cut off an arm to save Sun-Times Media and now it’s time for Sun-Times Media to show some love.

I asked Rilea what obligation, if any, he considers management to be under. “The Sun-Times’s obligation, and goal, is to create a business that is profitable,” he responded, “and is able to provide security for all of its 700-plus employees, most of whom participated in the same pay cuts required of all employees for the sale to the previous owner.” Thus management gently sends the guild’s 150 members a message: This is not all about you. It’s a message the guild has heard before; three years ago it came from nonunion employees infuriated that the guild’s recalcitrance might sink the company and cost everyone their jobs.

“All Sun-Times employees are working extremely hard to turn the ship around,” Rilea continued, “and we need to continue to work together if we expect this company to grow in the future.”

The guild’s view of it is that if the company wants to grow and profit, new content and new technology can only take it so far unless old professionalism is back in the mix. At Pioneer Press, Pollard laments (as Stiefel did before him), too many staff reporters who knew their beats have been replaced by an ever-changing assortment of stringers who don’t.

If the company wants to negotiate for more old professionalism, the guild is eager to cooperate. These are familiar negotiating roles. The guild is always as ready to sound as high-minded as management is to sound visionary.