Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Boston Globe's largest union rejects cuts

By Robert Gavin
Boston Globe Staff Reporter

The Boston Globe's largest union tonight narrowly rejected $ 10 million in wage and benefit cuts, and about an hour later the paper's ownerdeclared an impasse in negotiations and imposed a 23 percent pay cut on theunion's members, effective next week.

The move by The New York Times Co., which said the Globe's dire financial condition gave it no choice, could quickly shift the bitter contract dispute from the bargaining table to the National Labor Relations Board and federal courts.

The Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents nearly 700 editorial, advertising, and business office workers, has told members it would file unfair labor practice charges with the board, andseek a court order blocking the Times Co. from imposing the pay cut.

In a statement, Globe spokesman Robert Powers said management was disappointed by the vote, and that the company must now move ahead with the deep pay cut. He said the company sent a letter advising Guild officials of the move tonight.

"As we have stated, the $10 million in cost savings from this multifaceted proposal is essential to The Boston Globe's financial future," Powers said. "We regret having to take this action, but have nofinancially viable alternative."

Guild president Daniel Totten declined comment on the company's move to implement the 23 percent pay cut until he could review the letter. After the vote, Totten said in a statement, "With today's vote, members of the Boston Newspaper Guild have said that The New York Times Company must do better than the offer that was presented. Globe workers and the New England community understand that the quality of The Boston Globe — an institution so vital to the life and culture of the region — depends on the fair treatment of the men and women who work so hard to produce it."

Guild members, with about 80 percent participating, voted 277 to 265 to reject the company's contract offer, which included pay cuts totalling more than 10 percent; deep cuts to health and retirement benefits,including a pension freeze; and the elimination of lifetime job guarantees for about 170 veteran members.

The Guild is the only one of the Globe's four major unions to reject concessions the Times Co. said it needs to continue operating the Globe, projected to lose $85 million this year without significant cost savings.

In early April, the Times Co. said it would shutter the Globe, New England's largest newspaper, unless the paper's unions agreed to a combined $20 million, with half demanded from Guild.
Unions representing mailers, press operators, and delivery truck drivers approved concessions worth nearly a combined $10 million.

In declaring the impasse, the Times Co. said it tried its best to reach agreement with the Guild, but could not. The pay cut goes into effect next week and will appear in Guild employee checks on June 25, Globe management said.

"The urgency of the Globe's financial condition makes it imperative that we achieve those savings and savings negotiated with our other unions immediately," said Gregory Thornton, the Globe's chief negotiator, in a letter to Totten.

The Thornton letter also invited Totten to discuss the 23 percent paycut with management "any day this week," before it takes effect.

The Times Co.'s move represents another chapter in the contentious relations with the Guild. Unlike other unions, Guild leaders never reached a tentative agreement over concessions, promising only to bring the company's offer to members for a vote, without recommending for or against.

Still, union leaders signalled in several ways that they would not be unhappy if members voted down the proposal. Totten, for example, said he was going to vote "no" in the hopes of negotiating a better deal.

Both sides would embark on a risky path by moving from the bargaining table to the legal process, according to labor law specialists. Unfair labor practice cases hinge on whether negotiations were conducted in "goodfaith," a term with a definition that is murky at best, said Thomas Kohler, a Boston College law professor.

As a result, these cases can drag on for months, if not years. The Detroit newspaper strike of 1995 was launched after management declared an impasse in contract negotiations and imposed its own conditions on union workers. The case was litigated into the next decade.

"There is no litmus test that the bargaining is in good faith,"said Kohler. "It's a messy process and it can be lengthy."

Guild members would likely have to live with the onerous pay cut until the case is resolved because courts rarely grant orders to block such moves while the cases are being litigated, according to labor law specialists. On the other hand, the Times Co. could be liable for dollars in back salaries and interest should the Guild challengeeventually succeed.

Ultimately, the best outcome for both sides might be to negotiate adeal, said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester.

"If the United Auto Workers can settle with General Motors on the brink of bankruptcy, why can't the Times Co. settle with its reporters?"Chaison said.

In many ways, today passed like any other day at the 137-year-old newspaper. But with Guild members voting in a large numbers — turnout exceeded 80 percent — it was decidedly no typical day.

Some voted no, others voted yes, and still others paced the hallways at the paper unsure of how to vote.

"Either way, we're going to lose," said David Filipov, a reporter for 14 years at the Globe.

As Dina Rudick saw it, voting yes was the best of two terrible options. "The industry is in peril and for us to expect things to remain the same is ludicrous," said Rudick, a Globe photographer for the last seven years. "We may not like it, but we have got to evolve, and evolution may look like shrinking for now."

To read previous coverage of the issues facing The Boston Globe, click here.

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