Labor Wars: A Cease-Fire at Pioneer Press

As we write, diplomacy has replaced cold war at Pioneer Press. Both sides are speaking in the careful tongues of adversaries edging back from the abyss. The abyss, a strike, might have begun this past Tuesday, had urgent conversation–at the highest levels, as they say–not bought some time.

We’ll discuss that conversation later. First, let’s turn back the clock to that zany hour when labor-management relations at Pioneer Press reached their nadir–absolute zero. This was in February 1988, when management declared that the union it was negotiating with didn’t exist.

Here’s how that happened. Pioneer was an open shop; and only 29 of the 99 production workers on whose behalf the Chicago Newspaper Guild was trying to negotiate had even signed dues checkoff cards. Hardly anyone ever came to union meetings.

Management wasted little respect on the union negotiating team. “They were leading us by the nose,” pressman Pete Wagner would remember. Wagner, a late addition to the Guild team, said that a company negotiator sneered at one point, “You don’t even have 30 percent membership! How can you ask for anything?”

Wagner wondered that too. And he decided to act. He posted a memo on the Guild bulletin board that said: “We the Union Negotiators have agreed to propose a 0% pay increase for production personnel for the next 3 years. Without the support of the production personnel we have found that we don’t have a leg to stand on . . .”

As Wagner said later, “The only way to get people at Pioneer Press emotional about anything was to threaten their money.”

But it was management that reacted. If the production workers refused to support the Guild, why should the company recognize the Guild as their bargaining agent? So Pioneer shut down negotiations.

Finally, the rank and file awoke. A membership drive soon added another 25 or so names to the checkoff list (which the company now ignored). And thus fortified, the Guild marched to the National Labor Relations Board and charged Pioneer with various unfair labor practices, especially refusing to bargain.

The company position that it didn’t have to bargain has since been rejected at virtually every legal turn. Last August, an NLRB judge found Pioneer guilty on all counts. Last January, U.S. District judge Suzanne Conlon ordered Pioneer to go back to the bargaining table.

At the time of the Wagner initiative, the Pioneer chain of suburban newspapers (which now number 46) was owned by the Field Corporation. The Sun-Times Company bought the chain in January of ’89 and left its management pretty much intact. Refusing to accept defeat, this management is even now appealing judge Conlon’s order to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

All this adamancy had one perverse result. It gave the Guild a far stronger hand to play as it began negotiating for the 125-member editorial unit, whose contract with Pioneer expired last February 1. Historically, the Guild’s production and editorial units have bargained at different times; and even now they’re after different things. The back-shop workers want the dignity and protection of a contract; wages aren’t an issue. On the editorial side wages are the biggest issue–the two sides are still as distant as a 20 percent raise is from a 3.

But when Judge Conlon sent management grudgingly back to the table, production and editorial seized this rare opportunity to ally. On June 12, both units were threatening to walk off their jobs–which might have shut down the chain.

Mediation accomplished nothing. Jim Robinson, a photographer who’s the editorial unit chairman at Pioneer, told us the federal mediator threw up his hands. “He said the two sides were so far apart there was nothing he could do for us.”

The Guild took the usual escalating steps. In early April, as Pioneer unveiled a new design for its papers, the editorial unit waged a two-day byline strike. (One of the reasons it was called off is that some readers took the absence of bylines to be an element of the new design.) An informational picket line was

posted outsie the Wilmette plant, and advertisers were warned the papers might soon stop publishing. Meanwhile, Pioneer executives took classes in running the printing presses.

But on June 6, even as Guild members issued a press release announcing that “workers are prepared to strike at 12:01 AM, on June 12,” a secret meeting made this announcement obsolete.

Unknown to Robinson and production unit chairman Ken Forster, and to most Pioneer negotiators as well, there’d been a back-channel breakthrough. Charles Dale, international president of the Newspaper Guild, came to town and met that same day, Wednesday, June 6, with Sam McKeel, the president of the Sun-Times Company. Also present were the company’s labor attorney Vic Strimbu, Dick Gilbert, the president of Pioneer Press, and Jerry Minkkinen, executive director of the Chicago Newspaper Guild.

No one we reached who was there wanted to talk about this meeting, the situation remaining far too precarious to risk a careless word being dropped. What’s clear is that civility was restored, the strike deadline was lifted, and a second meeting among the same personages was scheduled for late this week. “Both sides agreed to pull in their horns,” editorial representative Jim Robinson told us, after hearing from Minkkinen. “The company’s not doing overtly anything to antagonize us. We’ll cool it with the memos we post around the building calling them scum.”

It helped that Dale and Strimbu had built up credit with each other over the years, especially during the ’88 Sun-Times negotiations, when Dale also interceded at the 11th hour. And Guild leaders like Robinson sense the practical hand of Sam McKeel being raised to restore order.

Robinson reminded us that back in 1985, when McKeel was publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, 12 unions went out for 46 days. Strikes are like wars in that once you’ve been through one you’ll do almost anything to avoid another. And McKeel was brought here a year ago to make his company healthy, not to bust unions. The most interesting thing McKeel has going for him right now is the Sun-Times Network, which offers an advertiser a single buy putting him in the Sun-Times, the company’s Star newspapers in the southern suburbs, and the Pioneer papers in the affluent northern and northwestern suburbs. McKeel certainly doesn’t want to see the healthiest leg of this contraption go lame.

We asked Tom Gibbons, the head of the Guild’s Sun-Times unit, if life there had changed under McKeel. “The number of grievances and arbitrations has plummeted in the last six months,” Gibbons said. “We still have disagreements but they’re healthy disagreements. McKeel’s not looking for battles.”

“This was our third negotiation under three owners,” Jim Robinson reflected. (Before the Field Corporation, Time Inc. owned Pioneer.) “Always, the feeling was that if we could just get to the people above the people at the bargaining table, we could make them see reason. This time it may have worked.”

Old Friends

The Soviet president knew the truth. It had been a terrible summit. The whole thing was poppycock–the leaders of the two most debt-ridden, mismanaged economies in the world pretending they could rearrange Europe. Who cared what they thought except themselves?

That’s why the gloomy Soviet leader was so glad to see Dutch again. Dutch had an amazing ability to make him happy.

“Don’t let that German business get you down,” said Dutch with a twinkle in his eye. He rifled through his three-by-five cards and cracked a few salty Kraut jokes, ones the plucky bomber crews on the Warner back lot used to crack during night raids.

“We licked ’em once,” Dutch said sunnily. “Doggone it, if they get out of line we’ll just have to lick ’em again.”

“If I may try to convey the German question from my country’s point of view . . .” said the Soviet leader.

“Sure,” said Dutch.

“The Germans started World War II. More than 50 million people died in World War II. Over half of them were Soviet citizens.”

“Boy, that Hitler . . .” Dutch whistled. “Well, that must have, smarted, no doubt about it. But 45 years is an awfully long time to hold a grudge. You remember when I–the president of the United States–went to Biffburg and paid my visit to those German SS commando graves. Well, as I told Nancy, that’s when everybody should have realized the healing process had finally run its course.

“And you know why?” Dutch continued.

The Soviet leader didn’t know why.

“Because they were dead!” Dutch said forcefully. “That’s the point nobody seemed to get. They were dead and we weren’t. And the Germans who weren’t dead that day all seemed friendly enough. So put your chips on a freemarket economy and let the Germans take care of themselves.”

Thus the Soviet leader was reminded of his second vast concern.

“Our economists tell us that if we convert to capitalism, we’ll immediately be faced with somewhere between 10 and 40 million unemployed people.”

“Then what you need is what we had,” said Dutch, “a safety net for the truly needy.”

“But we have such a net now,” said the Soviet leader.

“What’s that?”


Dutch thought that one over. “But it’s godless,”, he pointed out. “As Jimmy Watt used to say, the only safety net that’s worth a hoot is God.”

The Soviet leader couldn’t argue with that. It was astonishing how light-headed he felt, how lightly the world’s woes now rested on his shoulders. Just ten minutes with his old friend Dutch, and no problem seemed serious any longer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.