Nine unions at Philly papers extend talks
PHILADELPHIA – Nine unions at Philadelphia’s two largest newspapers agreed Thursday to extend contract talks by another week and are prepared to cross picket lines if editorial employees strike before then, a union leader said.”We think a strike is really going to hurt us,” said Joe Lyons, president of the Philadelphia Council of Newspaper Unions, which represents nine of 10 unions at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. “Whatever direction they’re going, we totally disagree with that.”Asked if that means the unions, including the drivers, would cross picket lines, Lyons said: “If we have to, we will.”The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents over 900 editorial and other workers, was threatening to strike if it cannot reach an agreement with management before its current contract expires at midnight Thursday.Henry Holcomb, president of the Guild, said its members are not interested in another lengthy extension because “it causes management to relax, then we’ll have a fire drill again.” The contract had already been extended one month.The company and the Guild have clashed over management’s proposal to freeze and take over pensions, cut sick pay benefits and disregard seniority when it comes to layoffs.Holcomb said he hadn’t heard directly from the council about its willingness to cross picket lines. If they do, they would be breaking a long Philadelphia tradition, he said.If the Guild does go on strike, the support of the other unions would be critical, notably that of drivers who could disrupt newspaper distribution even if management publishes papers.”So much of what produces a newspaper has become automated,” said newspaper analyst John Morton. “The thing that would interfere with that is distributorship.”The newspapers were long part of Knight Ridder Inc., which was sold in March to McClatchy Co. McClatchy sold the Philadelphia papers three months later to Philadelphia Media Holdings, an investment group led by Brian Tierney, a former public relations executive who is now the papers’ chief executive, in a deal worth $562 million.Weekday circulation at the Inquirer fell 7.6 percent to nearly 331,000 in the six months ended Sept. 30, compared with a national decline in daily weekday circulation of 2.8 percent. And last month, Tierney announced that declining ad revenue would require contract concessions and that layoffs were unavoidable. The top editor has also since been replaced.Analysts said a strike would hurt both the company, which would suffer declines in advertising revenue and circulation, and employees, who risk losing their jobs or having to accept lower wages.”They are debilitating for everybody,” said Steve Cabot, chairman of The Cabot Institute for Labor Relations, a suburban Philadelphia consulting firm that advises management.Employees have not fared well in recent strikes at other major newspapers.Arguably the most bitter newspaper strike occurred at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News and lasted 19 months. When it ended in 1997, circulation and wages fell. The strike cost the papers $300 million, mostly due to hiring of replacement workers and lost ad revenue.But in the end, management got the upper hand, Morton said.”The unions struck and basically overnight the owners were able to achieve staff reductions that would have taken them years to negotiate,” he said.The Detroit publishers planned well for a strike. Morton said he is not so sure about Philadelphia Media Holdings.”Management is not as well-equipped to pull it off,” he said. “These guys haven’t run newspapers before, so who knows how that might turn out?”In the event of a strike, Guild members plan to contribute to an online news site, http://www.PhilaPapers.com, that would compete with the company-owned Web site, http://www.Philly.com.If the Guild goes on strike, it would be their first since a 46-day walkout in 1985.