Minnesota Newspaper Teamsters Say No to Concessions

September 10, 2008: For the second time in a month, Teamsters in the Pressman’s Union at the Minneapolis Star Tribune voted overwhelmingly to reject their proposed contract.

The contract would have cut wages by 16 percent over the life of the deal and forced major concessions on the union.

“The company is asking us to slash our own throats to save their profits,” said Kevin Bialon, a union negotiator who has been a pressman for 27 years. “In return, they were giving us empty promises about a possible future. There were no guarantees that there wouldn’t be future cuts.”

The vote to reject the contract was 80 to 29. Five weeks ago, the pressmen voted 77 to 27 against virtually the same givebacks.

“They wanted us to give up contract clauses that we’ve won over the past 80 years and in return we’d get nothing,” said a second union member.

The Pressmen are Teamsters as a result of a decision by the Graphic Communications International Union to join the IBT several years ago. There are two other Teamster locals at the Star Tribune—the drivers in Local 638 and the mailers in Local 120. Members in those two locals voted to approve major concessions last month, despite significant opposition by some members. But Star Tribune Teamsters in all three locals were told by a Teamsters Joint Council 32 official that if one local turned down the agreement, it would kill the agreement for all of them.

But now the Joint Council is saying they never said that, and are insisting that the bad contracts approved by the drivers and mailers will stand.

That has led to petition drives inside both the drivers and mailers to protest the Joint Council’s position, signed by about half the members in each unit.

Teamster Solidarity

Rick Sather, a driver and member of Local 638, said there is a growing sense among the drivers and mailers that it was a mistake for them to vote in favor of the givebacks.

“There are a lot of mailers and drivers who are congratulating the pressmen for taking their stand—voting ‘no’ twice,” said Sather. “Members are saying if the pressmen can reject these concessions, cutting wages and jobs, than we can, too.”

The pressmen have had a long tradition of maintaining good union standards and it has provided a livelihood for generations of workers. Fathers, sons, and grandsons have worked at the newspaper.

The current Pressmen’s contract does not expire until December 2010, but Avista, the corporate owner of the Star Tribune, pushed to reopen it.

Big Concessions on Jobs, Wages

Under the proposed givebacks, the pressmen would have lost about 60 of the 340 shifts per week, sharply reducing the workforce. Besides putting unfair production pressures on the members, it would endanger job safety.

The company also wanted to scrap long-time overtime provisions designed to make the company pay a penalty if it brought back pressmen on short rest. Currently, if a member of the union worked a shift within 12 hours of their last shift, it would pay time and a half. Under the givebacks, that would be given up.

Another long-standing provision is that any work over 7 hours in a day is paid at time and a half. Under the giveback proposal, no overtime would be paid until 40 hours in a week.

Another big issue is wages. Besides cutting members’ pay by 10 percent, union members would not have received scheduled increases of $1 an hour in December of 2008 and another $1 an hour in December 2009. In total, the givebacks would be a 16 percent wage cut over the next two years.

The Joint Council pressed all three locals to adopt the concessions in August, warning Teamster members that to vote against the deals would lead to the company going bankrupt.

After the givebacks were rejected by the pressmen in August, the bargaining committee was flown to Washington, D.C. to meet with company officials at the Teamsters’ headquarters, known as the Marble Palace. The company made slight changes in the big concession proposal before the second vote this week.

The bargaining committee did not support the concessionary agreement before the first vote. On the second vote this week, the committee did not urge members to vote “yes” or “no.”

“The company was asking the union for help, but they wanted to do nothing to protect our jobs, to get some job security,” said one member. The company wanted 18 buyouts of older workers, and rejected the idea that they be replaced with younger workers.

Currently, the union has 51 members who have lifetime job guarantees, 51 with guarantees for the life of the contract, and 29 without any guarantees. The union asked for more protection for current members, which the company rejected.

“They are trying to rape us,” said the union member. “It’s time to take a stand.”

Another concern of pressmen was that the bosses went after employees while they feathered their own nests. “Management wanted all the rank and file to take pay cuts, but they wouldn’t take them themselves,” said Bialon of the Pressman’s Union. “In fact, they took a partial bonus.”

Corporate Raiders Behind the Union Busting

The Star Tribune, the largest daily newspaper in Minnesota, with a Sunday circulation over 600,000, was purchased by Avista, a private equity firm, about two years ago. At the time, analysts stated and Star Tribune officials acknowledged that it would be a short-term purchase. The strategy of Avista would be to dramatically slash costs, then resell the company at a tidy profit.

Over the last few months, Avista has been leaking information that it couldn’t make its debt payments, though it has been widely speculated, with no denials from the company, that—as with other newspapers across the country—its profits are doing well. Still, with a faltering economy, advertising is down, and much of the classified ad revenue has migrated to the Internet. Avista allowed unions at the Star Tribune to look at the newspaper’s books, but pointedly did not show the unions Avista’s books.

Avista officials told the media earlier this year that the Star Tribune is in good financial shape and there is a widespread belief that its attempts to gut the unions is all about making as much money as possible for Avista’s investors, most of whom are unknown.

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