Labored Relations

A corporation is never more obliged to talk straight than when it’s trying to sell its stock. This spring, shortly after purchasing the Sun-Times Company, the American Publishing Company put 7.3 million shares on the market and published a 102-page prospectus.

Among the matters the prospectus came clean on was labor relations at American Publishing’s new acquisition. The suburban Pioneer Press chain had seen rocky times, but now management apparently held the upper hand.

“An impasse in the negotiation of two labor contracts with the Chicago Newspaper Guild as representative of 220 newsroom and production employees of Pioneer Press was declared on February 16, 1994, after eight months of negotiation and two months of federal mediation,” said the prospectus. “The production unit contract was terminated and terms and conditions were posted. . . . Newsroom employees continue to work under the terms of the expired contract.”

But despite the past unpleasantness, American Publishing was upbeat. “There have been no strikes or general work stoppages at any of Chicago Sun-Times’ newspapers in the past five years,” said the prospectus. “Chicago Sun-Times believes that its relationships with its employees are generally good.”

This profession of amity was a peg the guild could hang its hat on as 1994 proceeded with no signs of progress on two hostile fronts: the dormant negotiations at Pioneer and the new round of contract talks at the Sun-Times. The two situations were very different. Guild membership at Pioneer is scattered among 41 papers in six offices; lacking a union shop, the guild receives dues from only about two-thirds of the employees it bargains for; and management tends to regard its employees–as some regard themselves–as easily replaceable.

Downtown at the Sun-Times, where there is a union shop and the guild commands one floor, the members consider themselves an elite–important journalists, many with popular bylines, who would bring the paper to its knees if they walked out. Whenever it’s come down to it, management hasn’t disagreed. Every three years negotiations go to the wire, but the deal is always done.

Any labor negotiation is complex, no matter how strong or weak a hand the union has to play. The complexity of the guild’s negotiations with the Sun-Times Company increased geometrically in August when the Sun-Times unit and the Pioneer editorial unit agreed to a “linkup.” There was no legal way to bind the units into one force. But the separate negotiating teams made it clear they’d keep a close eye on each other’s interests. “There will be no settlement for one until there are settlements for all,” Jerry Minkkinen, executive director of the guild, told Crain’s Chicago Business early this month. At both Pioneer and the Sun-Times a strike deadline was set for noon Monday, November 7. Workers in both units were standing with their coats on once the deadline passed.

Another complication was the strange management structure of the Sun-Times Company. Since Sam McKeel resigned as president the company’s been run by a triumvirate of executive vice presidents: Dennis Britton, who’s also editor of the Sun-Times; Tom Neri, who’s also publisher of the Pioneer chain; and Charles Champion, who runs the company’s sales and marketing. Neri actively negotiated for Pioneer. Britton wasn’t at the table for the Sun-Times, but he set the tone. When his paper and the guild came to terms about an hour past the noon deadline, each side complimented the other on its good will. The company’s doves, Britton strangely among them, had prevailed over its hawks.

The era of good feeling lasted a day–until Minkkinen and the guild’s Pioneer negotiators met with Neri and other Pioneer executives on Tuesday. Neri, the company’s chief financial officer, was counted among the hawks. Now, says Minkkinen, he offered a new contract that not only did not sweeten management’s last proposal, offered months before, but made it worse.

“Duplicity reigns,” said Minkkinen. Neri, he declared, had violated assurances given him Monday morning in an off-the-record conversation. It was on the basis of those assurances, he said, that the guild’s Sun-Times team had gone back to the table later Monday and wrapped things up. If the company now meant to play games the Sun-Times unit had no intention of ratifying its contract.

“Pioneer’s management now has been accused by the Guild of reneging on a purported agreement,” Neri responded in a memo to his staff. “This is a bold-faced lie.” The only commitment he said he’d made to Minkkinen was to offer some retroactive pay in the form of a “signing bonus” once a contract was ratified.

At the Sun-Times Ted Rilea, vice president for labor relations, wrote Minkkinen a note telling him his warning “that our agreement could unravel unless agreement is reached this week with representatives of the Pioneer Press . . . is shocking and unacceptable.” Rilea and executive editor Mark Nadler, both management negotiators, posted a memo dismissing the accusation of duplicity as “insulting and inaccurate.”

The Nadler-Rilea memo said the guild’s position shifted between a meeting the previous Saturday night with Minkkinen and Charles Nicodemus, who chairs the Sun-Times unit, and a second meeting Sunday morning. On Saturday “the message, particularly from Minkkinen, was clear: No contract at Pioneer, no contract at the Sun-Times. We informed him we would not allow the Sun-Times contract talks to be held hostage.”

But Sunday saw a sea change, the Nadler-Rilea memo claimed. Minkkinen “told us we must have misunderstood him. . . . Minkkinen even proposed we ban any further mention of Pioneer throughout the remainder of our negotiations. On the basis of those representations–and only on that basis–we agreed to resume talks and finally reached a tentative agreement.”

There’d been no sea change, says Nicodemus. “The company said [Sunday], we’re hearing something different. We said, maybe you’re choosing to emphasize something else, but our message is the same. The company said, well, it sounds different to us, so we’ll continue to negotiate.”

Nicodemus posted a memo of his own headed “MEMO WARS: Lets Have Fewer of Them and More Talking.” He advised, “Please notice that both the Nadler and the Neri memos avoid mentioning the fact . . . that the Sun-Times talks with the guild were suspended for two hours Monday morning, resuming just one hour before the strike deadline, so that the guild’s executive director could discuss the Pioneer situation with Pioneer negotiators. Does that sound to you like there was no connection between the negotiations . . . or no connection that Sun-Times officials were aware of? Hardly.”

What about that? we later asked Rilea.

“To me, once you get into mediation, the mediator calls the shots,” he said dismissively. “Jerry indicated he’d set something up and the mediator let him go.”

Is there an element of farce here? The concept of a “linkup” was so vague it could mean whatever anyone wished it to. “How precisely you define the linkup will end up being clearer at the end than the beginning,” Nicodemus said. “And that was intentional. But it worked.”

Perhaps it did. At Pioneer it restarted negotiations that were dead in the water. And Tuesday, election night, Sun-Times workers briefly left their jobs in support of the floundering Pioneer unit. “What the hell’s going on here!” shouted Britton as his newsroom cleared. Nicodemus thinks this show of solidarity drove Neri back to the bargaining table last Saturday with a new offer. (Neri didn’t return our calls.) He restored wages to where they’d been before Tuesday (though the “signing bonus” disappeared) and granted a variety of small gains in other areas, such as increased severance pay and a written ban against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Seventeen months after the old contracts expired new ones were grudgingly accepted last Monday by Pioneer’s editorial and production units.

“It’s a contract that stinks,” said Mike Isaacs, bargaining-team coordinator of the editorial unit. “It’s a contract Pioneer employees are being forced to swallow. It’s a regressive contract in many ways.”

Nicodemus attended the editorial unit’s angry meeting and told the Pioneer workers to expect no more from the Sun-Times unit. He told them that the next night his colleagues would ratify their contract no matter what happened there.

“They were not happy with the contract, and I did not expect them to be,” he said afterward. “They felt betrayed by the company, and I think many of them felt the Sun-Times unit had not lived up to what they perceived as its commitment. Our effort on their behalf so enthralled them they came to believe that if they wanted the Sun-Times unit to go out it would.”

“They used us for strength,” protests a Pioneer worker who wants to go unnamed. “They sold us down the river.”

“They came to us. We didn’t come to them,” Nicodemus responds angrily. “They seem to forget that.”

Goodwill vanished between the guild units as it had vanished between the guild and the Sun-Times management when that paper’s settlement was put at risk. For a brief moment the new Sun-Times contract made everyone unusually happy. It finally takes effect shrouded in even more than the usual rancor.

News Bites

Sun-Times theorist Dennis Byrne, November 10, railed against the takeover of the Democratic Party by the “Chic Left.” Theorist Raymond Coffey, same paper, noted that Cook County had stayed solid for the Democrats, all of them regulars but David Orr, “who plays to the self-ordained liberal-independent-reformer clique.” That clique gave him 720,000 votes, but hey . . .

Department of the big picture. From the syndicated bridge column by Omar Sharif and Tannah Hirsch that runs in the Tribune: “The year 1933 was memorable. On the international scene, Hitler came to power. In bridge, one of your columnists was born and this hand was dealt in the club championship pair event at the Franklin Bridge club in Philadelphia.”