December 23, 2008: As the owners at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis continue to make their case for huge contract concessions, a growing number of workers are making their voices heard.
They don’t like it.
Opposition is intense among production workers who are facing wage cuts up to 42 percent. But there is criticism of the concessions coming from all the unions.
Doug Rzeszutek, a 29-year pressman and Teamster member at the Star Tribune, said he had two kids in college. “How are they going to finish college if dad has to take a huge pay cut?” he asked.
“I think the mood is growing among the workers that ‘no concessions’ is the right way to go,” said Rick Sather, a newspaper driver and Teamster for 30 years. Many workers at the Heritage building, the newspaper’s production facility, have been wearing “No Concessions” buttons and stickers.
No Concessions, No Dessert
Avista, the private equity firm which bought the newspaper two years ago, cancelled its free Christmas dinner last Thursday, a traditional annual event that for decades has been held for workers in the cafeteria of its downtown Minneapolis newspaper building and at Heritage. Instead the company offered the workers a dessert buffet—cake and cookies.
Rank and file workers at Heritage organized a boycott. “No concessions, no dessert,” read a sign workers posted at the entrance of the Heritage cafeteria.
Chris Harte, the company publisher, went into the lunchroom cafeteria at Heritage while the dessert was set out. He sat at a table with members of middle management. Workers were uninterested in talking to him as they filed into the cafeteria for lunch.
Sather sat at a nearby table with a sign on his back that read “no concessions.”
On Thursday night, Harte returned to Heritage to talk to workers on the late shifts when the desserts were set out again.
When Sather said that there was a problem in the platemaking department that kept the presses from starting, Harte left the lunchroom and went upstairs to see what was going on. When Harte passed by the presses, pressmen started to boo him and Harte turned around and walked the other way.
In the newsroom, which is organized by the Newspaper Guild, rank-and-file workers organized their own pot luck buffet to replace the dinner that the company decided not to have.
Avista has been threatening the unions, saying it will go bankrupt unless it can extract $20 million in concessions. While the company has been making profits, it borrowed large sums to buy the Star Tribune and has been unable to repay the loans. Instead of Avista digging into its own pockets to meet the debt payments, it is putting the squeeze on the unions for the concessions.
The mailers, who are Teamsters, face wage cuts of 42 percent. It is reported that the mailers union told the company that its concessionary proposals will not fly with their members. Sather said that representatives of the Teamster drivers met last week and also turned down the company proposal.
A meeting with the company and the pressmen is scheduled for Dec. 30, said Kevin Bialon, a member of the pressmen bargaining committee. “We’ll listen,” he said.
But Bialon said the company has already laid off 19 pressmen, reducing their numbers to around a hundred, and wants to cut the pressmen’s numbers to 74—severely weakening the union. Besides pay cuts, Avista wants to stop paying pressmen overtime until they reach 40 hours, meaning they could work long shifts on a given day without overtime. The company also wants to stop contributing to the pressmen’s pension.
“It’s worse that what we turned down before,” said Bialon. Over the summer, the members of the pressmen’s union twice voted overwhelmingly to reject concessionary proposals from the company.
David Chanen, Newspaper Guild unit co-chair, said, “The company’s initial proposal, which was presented at a meeting last Friday, was again considered to be unacceptable and would do serious damage to the current contract which was just ratified in July.
“The concessions included taking away merit pay and barring it in the future to specific pay scales, arbitrarily taking away merit pay from newsroom employees, taking away overtime pay to workers in supervisory positions and freezing the pension and pay.”
Paying for Avista’s Mistakes
“Over the years,” said pressman Rzeszutek, “I would say 100 percent of people in the press room have been proud to work for this newspaper. And I think this percentage has largely swung in the other direction. I think the company is asking us to pay for their mistakes. I think that’s totally wrong.”
Doug Toensing, another 29-year pressman, said the company is “top heavy” with executives, and before it demands cuts from the union membership, it should take big cuts itself.
He also said it could be a health and safety hazard if the company can schedule pressmen for long hours each day without having to pay overtime until a worker reaches 40 hours. “I think it is very wrong,” he said.
A Newspaper Workers Rank and File Solidarity Support Committee has organized to build support for the unions in resisting the company’s union busting demands.
The harshest wage cuts are being reserved for the production workers, noted Chis Serres, a reporter and a member of the Guild and the solidarity committee.
“A union job used to be a ticket to the middle class,” he said. “But there is no way a driver or a mailer or a pressman will be able to support a family or send their kids to college on the kind of wages Avista wants to pay them. They deserve better. We deserve better.”