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January 12, 2008: Labor unions at the Star Tribune have been given the royal brush-off by the company which has refused to negotiate seriously with the unions, setting the stage for the company to file for bankruptcy.

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Avista, the private equity firm that owns the newspaper, has indicated to the unions that it is likely to file for bankruptcy.

The proposals Avista made to the unions were so draconian, it was a virtual certainty that that the union bargaining committees would be obligated to reject the proposals.

In a statement to company employees, Avista blamed the unions for a failure to reach agreements with the company. The statement is blatantly untrue.

Bargaining committee members from several unions indicated it appeared the company was not serious about obtaining a settlement, but just going through the motions in an attempt to persuade a bankruptcy judge that it tried to reach an agreement. Union members know better.

The union committees worked hard to negotiate an agreement with Avista and several unions offered the company major concessions. But the company took a hard-line approach, demanding the unions accept Avista’s proposals which were tantamount to union busting. It seemed as if Avista wanted the unions to reject their proposals.

Avista’s concessionary demands would severely undermine all the unions, but target the blue collar unions the hardest. If Avista can break the craft unions, it could then bust the Newspaper Guild which depends on the craft unions for support. Avista clearly envisions a non-union future.

Need to reach out to community and other labor unions

There is a growing sense among some union leaders and activists that labor solidarity is imperative, as is the need for a labor mobilization to reach out to the broader community and labor movement, when bankruptcy is filed.

Under bankruptcy, union negotiations would be launched again and maximum pressure would need to be exerted by the unions, the labor movement and community to preserve decent contracts.

Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans continue to depend on the Star Tribune, which is the largest and most complete source of news in Minnesota. Many other media, including television, radio, wire services and Internet news providers, rely on the Star Tribune as a basic source of information by which they plan their own news coverage. The Star Tribune is a community resource which Avista has severely damaged in its quest for maximum profits.

Huge takebacks demanded by Avista

It is important that the public, as well as members of each union realize how badly Avista is behaving.

In the case of the Teamster Pressmen, Avista proposed 13 percent wage cuts that included slashing wages, rescinding a $1 an hour wage increase that took effect in December, and eliminating another $1 an hour increase, set to go into effect in a year. The Pressmen’s health benefits, 80 percent company-paid, 20 percent member-paid, would have dropped to nearly a 50/50 split. Also, Avista sought to cut the Pressmen’s work force by 16 members to 76, making them so weak, it would be increasingly difficult to win decent contracts in the future.

Teamster Mailers’ pay would have been cut to non-union levels, from $25 to $15 an hour. Many union members say it’s an outrage.

Avista wanted to eliminate overtime pay to assistant city editors in the Newspaper Guild of which there are many. By eliminating overtime pay, it would make it easier for Avista or another owner to get the National Labor Relations Board to declare them supervisors who don’t belong in the union.

Teamsters drivers’ pay would be reduced from $27.10 to $18.50 an hour. “It would cut my pay 32%, from $53,700 to $36,500,” said 30-year driver Rick Sather. “It breaks the union when those jobs are replaced by $13-an-hour, part-time workers who get no benefits.”

The company also sought major concessions from the Electricians, Machinists and SEIU custodial personnel.

“It shows the company sees its workers as more a liability than an asset,” said Doug Rzeszutek, a 30-year Pressman. “I’d like to see every union come together to support union and non-union employees and reach out to the general public for support.”

‘What they are asking for is unconscionable’

“What they are asking for is unconscionable,” said Greg Kujawa, a 30-year Teamster driver. “Avista does not care about the worker, the worker’s family or the community the family lives in. They are making profits of 9 or 10 percent from what I understand. They want the workers, in essence, to pick up the tab on their bad investment decisions.”

Said Bradley Hassel, a 36-year Pressman, “We all realize the company is in trouble, but they don’t give us a reason to vote for this thing,” referring to the concession-laden demands from Avista. Added Steve Pietrizak, a 42-year Pressman. “I think it is outrageous that the company is asking that I give up a third of my vacation time, that my medical insurance would be severely cut.”

“I’d like to encourage retirees from all the unions to step up and help their brothers and sisters who are still working,” said recent Pressman retiree Dan Ganley. “The company is trying to destabilize the unions with unilateral, unnecessary demands.”

‘Where’s my button?’

“Not only are all the union bargaining committees hanging together and not caving in to the company’s concessions, the members are also standing strong against the concessions,” said Sather. He said some 400 “no concessions” buttons and stickers have been distributed. “People are coming up every day and saying, ‘I didn’t get a button. Where’s my button?’”

If the company files for bankruptcy, the unions will need to continue to hang tough and the members will have to mobilize to get a fair shake. “We believe there is a lot of community support out there, a lot of labor support in the Twin Cities and we’ll need to harness it, working with all the unions at the paper to stand up for our rights,” said Chris Serres, a Guild member and reporter at the Star Tribune.

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