The negotiations Tom Thibeault calls the hardest of his life were over everything and almost nothing. At stake was the continued existence of the Sun-Times, Pioneer Press, and the dozens of other titles that constitute the Sun-Times Media Group—not to mention the Chicago Newspaper Guild, of which Thibeault is executive director. Were the guild to agree to all the concessions financier Jim Tyree was demanding before he’d take over the bankrupt company, it would turn itself into a nullity.
Thibeault’s goal was to have Tyree acknowledge written limits on his usurpation of union authority. Pioneer Press reporter Lynne Stiefel, president of the guild, put it best after the goal was achieved. “We were given a pig,” she told me. “It’s still a pig. We were able to put some lipstick on it.”
On September 10 STMG management messengered the guild a “memorandum of understanding and offer of settlement.” The future owners reserved the right to eliminate “any work rule, jurisdictional rule, seniority limitation, or other provision [of the guild contract] which in [their] managerial discretion, might prevent, impede or increase the cost of [their] implementation of a new business plan.”
In other words, whenever they considered the guild contract to be in their way, they could change it. Thibeault told guild members to reject this memorandum, and by lopsided majorities they did at every guild paper—the Sun-Times, Pioneer Press, and the dailies in Waukegan, Joliet, and northwest Indiana.
On October 7 the guild offered its members a revised memorandum. The paragraph on work rules and jurisdiction now included language worked out by negotiators that morning between midnight and three. “Except as expressly set forth in this agreement, nothing in this paragraph is intended to eliminate provisions in [the guild contract] relating to sick leave, overtime pay, holidays, vacation, leaves of absence, dues deductions, grievance and arbitration, or any other similar provisions that are wholly unrelated to the matters set forth in this agreement.”
“My recommendation was clear,” says Thibeault. “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.”
By roughly the same lopsided numbers in which they’d rejected the first memorandum, the guild units approved the revision. The next day a judge in bankruptcy court in Delaware awarded Tyree the company.
“The requests on our part just stunned the union, and if I were in their shoes I would be, too,” says Tyree. “I knew what I was proposing and asking for was a very difficult, difficult thing. I didn’t have a seat at the [negotiating] table so I had to put everything I believed in on the table up front. I was guided by two things—I needed 100 percent flexibility, and we couldn’t incur any more costs. The economics I think everybody understood. It was the issue of the work rules that are the core of a union’s work. I respect that and understand it. And in many, many situations it’s very appropriate. In this one I believe it would have had a very detrimental impact on the transformation of this company and I didn’t think it had a chance to transform itself without that flexibility.”
In Tyree’s view, the guild members’ imaginations ran away with them a little. “They went to extremes about all the negative things” he could do with 100 percent flexibility. “People looked at it as though there was a whole lot more that was going to be very bad that we’d never planned on doing.”
But as Stiefel says, “Nothing’s any good unless it’s in writing.” Thibeault called Tyree a couple times and suggested that if he wanted the guild’s OK there were things that needed to be discussed. “He was trying to say, ‘Don’t worry about those things—that’s not my intention,’ stuff like that. His lawyers and advisers wanted [the memorandum] to be as loose as possible and we wanted it as tight as possible. We wanted assurances.”
“There were a lot of members who were scared,” says Stiefel. “They had bills, health issues, they needed jobs. And there were others who recognized that when they laid this proposal on us, yeah, you have to balance, is it worth it to keep a job and lose everything else you’re fighting for?”
In addition to having her own job and the union’s future to think about, Stiefel had on her shoulders the future of Pioneer Press, where she’s worked since 1992, and for that matter of the entire company and its 1,800 jobs, most of them nonunion. If the best interests of one and all had aligned there’d have been no problem. But read, for example, the open letters from nonunion employees to guild employees of the Joliet and Indiana dailies imploring them to accept Tyree’s terms. (They’re on my blog, News Bites.) “[Tyree’s] throwing us a lifeline we desperately need. These idiots are waiting for a party boat and there isn’t a party boat coming,” account executive Kelsey Perry, the author of the Lake County letter, told me.
Inside her own shop Stiefel heard some coworkers argue that maybe liquidation would be OK—after all, Pioneer Press was the cash cow, the one piece of the company somebody would happily pick up and continue. Stiefel didn’t think so: Pioneer Press doesn’t have its own presses or circulation department or ad production staff. Austerity has driven the company to interdependence.
Because Stiefel’s husband works, she says, the choice between job and union didn’t seem so scary for her. But she’s sure she’d have rejected Tyree’s original set of demands regardless. (Pioneer Press voted it down 32 to 9.) “I knew, and Tom knew, we could find some way to make it better,” she says. “I never doubted it for a minute.”
The problem was that they couldn’t make it better all by themselves. “It was hard to get them to talk to us,” says Stiefel. “We kept saying, ‘You’ve got to talk to us. You’ve got to talk to us.’ Tom was talking to somebody every day. We kept up communications. He was in touch with a lot of people.” Interim CEO Jeremy Halbreich, labor relations vice president Ted Rilea, even Tyree.
But everything was off the record. “And I think that frustrated our members,” says Stiefel. “We couldn’t tell them what we were talking about. The company was saying, trust us. And the union was saying, trust us.” And secondly, it was talk that wasn’t worth repeating anyway. “They were talking to us but they were saying no, no, no.”
“They were just not going to negotiate,” says Thibeault. “It was take it or leave it.”
But that changed. Stiefel dates the change to Friday, October 2. “Friday was the first day I didn’t hear no, no, no. We heard maybe.”
Thibeault and Stiefel think the change had to do with the September 29 deadline the company had given its unions to come to terms. The date turned out to be arbitrary, and on September 24 a bankruptcy judge dismissed it as “posturing.” But it had loomed on the horizon long enough for the guild to demonstrate, to management and to itself, that a deadline alone wouldn’t make it cave. “After that I think the dynamics started working a little differently,” says Thibeault. “We made it clear we were not going to accept an agreement unless we had some true negotiations going forward.”
The next important date was October 8, the bankruptcy auction. If Tyree had the unions on his side he’d almost certainly take over the company, and if he didn’t he wouldn’t. “We knew October 8 was important to the company, and we needed serious bargaining, and we started moving a lot faster.”
I asked Tyree and Halbreich what put the talks on a different footing. “I don’t think it was ever on a different footing,” Tyree said. “It was an understanding and clarifying.” When STMG executives told him about the guild’s “negative feelings” he said, they let him know “there was a whole lot we could talk about to clear up everything. My comment was, ‘Sounds terrific.'” He said, “We collectively found a couple of ways to not just clarify but provide a little more.” (Severance was sweetened a little.)
According to Halbreich, the company “said all along there were things that needed to be clarified” and it was just a matter of “finding the time to sit down with them and march through those things.” It wasn’t even negotiations, he said, just talks, “nothing more than that.” And September 29 had nothing to do with it.
Whatever. The company survives, the union survives, and so do 1,800 jobs. The crisis ended with a gust of good feeling. Ted Rilea came in for high praise as a tower of strength in the negotiations. “He has credibility on all sides,” says Tyree. “If Ted gives you his word you can count on it,” says Thibeault.
Stiefel appeared side by side with Tyree on Chicago Tonight. “He’s always been a nice guy,” she says. “You hear from people who work with him on the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation [Tyree’s the former chair] that he’s wonderful. I have no doubt he is.” And Thibeault called Tyree. “I told him, ‘What’s not in this agreement in writing is trust.’ I think he understood that. I told him clearly trust has got to be earned both ways.”
Yet it had taken three weeks for men and women of good will to agree on language that in the view of the new owner of the Sun-Times Media Group merely clarified intentions he already had and in the view of the guild merely transformed an intolerable imposition into a loathsome burden. Someone untutored in the ways of lawyers and labor contracts might wonder why this took more than 30 minutes.
Tyree describes himself as a patient man. He says he intends to invest in the Sun-Times Media Group, largely in technology but perhaps also by increasing the editorial staff, and he’s willing to live with losses for years to come. “Whatever it takes,” he says. “Whatever makes sense. The pleasure of being a private company is I don’t have to talk to anybody about those things.”
At Mesirow Financial, which he runs, “you look at things in terms of five years and ten years, not in terms of quarters. That’s a big luxury.” Now he’s turning Mesirow’s entrepreneurial expertise to the task at hand. “In effect I’m a client of my firm,” he says. “We really believe we know the Sun-Times Media Group inside out and upside down. I’m not sure anybody else took the time to look at it. They said uh-oh and walked away.”
In three years, when the guild contract expires, the STMG will either have backed away from death’s door or fallen through it. If the company survives, the guild will have lived to fight again. The guild is also patient.
And for more coverage of the Sun-Times Media Group saga, see our blog.
Tyree and Stiefel on Chicago Tonight: