Striking a Deal at the Tribune

So labor peace reigns at the Tribune!

Say what? With 450 mailers still out? With 330 pressmen still out? With 125 printers who’ll stay out even if they accept the Tribune’s terms?

They will?

The Tribune doesn’t need them. As W.J. Usery, the Washington mediator who got the printers and Tribune together, told us: “I was convinced those jobs do not exist anymore–because of the computer. I think they’ll get around to where they won’t need hardly anybody.”

So what’s this settlement I read about in the papers?

The printers got a something that beats a nothing. The printers–and mailers and pressmen–struck the Tribune on July 18, 1985. In February of ’86, the printers agreed to return unconditionally and the paper took back 63 of them. Those 63–at least the 57 still there–are now guaranteed lifetime jobs at the Tribune doing something or other and wages equal to what the union printers over at the Sun- Times are getting; plus the Tribune remains a union shop. The other 125 left out in the cold? They get to split the return on some $8 million put up by the Tribune. Over the years that’s supposed to yield $20 to $23 million in annuities.

Sounds generous of the Tribune.

Sure. But those printers thought they had lifetime job guarantees to begin with–as printers. That’s the big reason the printers struck–the paper was shifting them to jobs outside their trade. At journeyman wages, $8 million would just about cover their back pay to February 1986.

Then why did the union settle?

Because the strike has been unending and miserable and the jobs are gone for good. Litigation would have gone on for years; federal judge Marvin Aspen, who brought Usery in to try to work something out, told the two sides: “We’ll take three years to get this thing settled. Then whoever loses will appeal and that’s three more years. How old are you?” Dave Donovan, for one, president of Local 16, Chicago Typographical Union, is old enough. “I’m the person who walked into the Tribune shop on the 18th of July and said, ‘It’s time,'” Donovan remembered. “I’m not happy about losing a lifetime job guarantee. But I’m going to vote for this contract.”

Does Donovan speak for the entire leadership?

He hopes he does. He’ll have to convince Paul Lehr, chairman of the printers’ newspaper scale committee. Lehr knows in his bones the Tribune would have lost in court. “Just the liability with the typographers would have been horrendous,” said Lehr, who added that he’d be willing to litigate “until I’m blue in the face.”

So will the rank and file accept this deal?

Probably. Now that each side has turned in its written version of Usery’s oral agreement, Donovan is optimistic. There are differences, but nothing unbridgeable. For example, the 130 scab printers the Tribune hired get the right to join the union–details to be negotiated. Donovan wants to negotiate them now; the Tribune wants union ratification to come first.

But one issue has some printers worried. That’s “favored nations.” Favored nations contracts license each of the city’s two papers to pay a trade as little as the competition does. The mailers are a model for what can happen. In 1986, the striking Tribune mailers also offered to go back to work unconditionally. And last July, a week after the Sun-Times’s contract with its mailers expired, the Sun-Times slashed their pay from $575 a week to $355–which was what the Tribune was paying its scabs. When the Tribune’s union mailers agreed to work without conditions, said the Sun-Times, they agreed to the scab wage scale.

As Local 16 members, Sun-Times printers can vote on the Tribune settlement. The Tribune 57 expect to get what Sun-Times printers now get–$16 an hour. But if a lower wage is negotiated for the Trib’s 130 scab printers, who can now join the union, the Sun-Times printers don’t want to be busted down to that level. “If the Sun-Times membership votes [the Tribune agreement] down it will be a travesty,” Usery told us, “because it protects them, you understand.” But Paul Lehr told us, “I don’t think Mr. Usery comprehended the situation relative to the favored nations clause. Because at the time they [Usery and Tribune negotiators] were assuring us this really had nothing to do with the Sun-Times favored nations, we got a letter from the Sun-Times that drove us into court.” This was a letter asking Local 16 for details of the Tribune negotiations. Clearly, the Sun-Times has had an eye on invoking favored nations.

When do the printers vote on the Tribune deal?

Probably not until November.

And the pressmen and mailers?

This does nothing for them at all. Like the two other trades, the pressmen also asked to go back last year while negotiations continued–which may be capitulation but it also keeps a company from hiring any more scabs and does improve a union’s position in litigation. The Tribune didn’t call back a single mailer or pressman. Last August, the mailers took the last proposal the Tribune had on the table, ratified it 214 to 11, signed it, and sent it to the Tribune. Which did not respond. Now the mailers consider themselves locked out. The mailers charge the Tribune with reneging on their own contract and with holding a secret decertification election among the scabs.

The pressmen charge the paper with drastically, and illegally, curtailing their union’s jurisdiction.

Any chance an arbitrator will settle these fights?

“I’m going to see what I can do,” Usery told us. Robert Hagstrom, president of Web Printing Pressmen Local 7, told us, “We welcome help, but we’re not interested in selling our jobs.”

What does Tribune management say about all this?

“No comment.”

What we like about the Sun-Times management, which has labor problems of its own, is that they’re willing to talk about them.

“I think it’s a shame you get a handful of curmudgeons. I think it’s a shame you get a handful of nay sayers who don’t want to be part of something that’s moving along and becoming really exciting,” is what Chuck Price, general manager of the Sun-Times, had to say. The “something” is his newspaper. The “handful” is the Chicago Newspaper Guild–which represents editorial employees.

In addition to the mailers’ scab-level salaries, a matter that is moving to arbitration, and a request for immediate arbitration filed by the printers to protect their wages from any favored nations cutback, there is a portfolio of issues dividing management from the Newspaper Guild.

Sick leave and maternity leave, for example. The guild says management has illegally curtailed both. And with maternity leave now counted against a limited amount of sick leave, women employees are especially victimized, says the guild.

“You and I both know there is a difference between our employees and the guild,” said Chuck Price. “We think the guild is absolutely wrong. We have not changed maternity leave policy. We have not changed sick leave policy. We treat maternity like any other sickness or disability, which is exactly what the law requires.”

An arbitrator will decide.

The Sun-Times laid off six library clerks last May and four copy clerks in July. The guild has filed for arbitration. “Our bargaining history is clear on this,” said Tom Gibbons, chairman of the guild’s Sun-Times unit. “There are two ways to lay people off: (1) for cause; (2) for economic hardship. The company said we needn’t be bound by any bargaining history because those agreements were reached by other people in other times.”

Price told us, “We reserve the right to determine the size and composition of the work force. We’ve asked them where under the contract they believe they have any support and they’ve yet to find it.”

Signs of estrangement abound at the Sun-Times. Gibbons said about 40 guild grievances are pending there, an astonishing number. The paper has been offering early retirement to some nonunion employees. Price said the offer has been “well received,” which CNG assistant director Catherine Struzynski said is only because “a lot of people . . . find the work situation oppressive and insecure.”

After an aggressive campaign by management, an election the guild expected to win–to organize the paper’s computer operators–was lost last month by a vote of six to five. “We don’t know what went wrong,” Struzynski said. “To this day, seven people still tell us they voted for the guild.”

Reporters we’ve talked to complain long and hard about the layoffs. The library functions at half speed–when it’s not locked; and since the copy clerks disappeared, Gibbons said, “we have our assistant city editors answering phone calls.”

Which brings us to the clickers. We mean the kid’s toy you squeeze in your palm. A reporter brought one to work, and every time he got what Gibbons calls “a dog of an assignment” he clicked out his annoyance. Presently other clickers made their way into the newsroom, and whenever one called out in protest, the others answered.

There were times, a reporter told us proudly, when the room crackled like a field of crickets.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alex Galindo.