A 14-year labor dispute at the Democrat and Chronicle may be winding to a conclusion.
But it's not the conclusion members of the paper's newsroom union wanted.
In early December the reporters, photographers, copy editors, and other newsroom employees who make up the Newspaper Guild of Rochester voted to reject a contract the company called its "final, firm, and best" offer.
The vote was 51 to 4.
Now, the Gannett corporation, which owns the D&C, has told the paper's newsroom workers that it plans to impose that contract anyway. Citing the years the two sides have wrangled over a contract and the lopsidedness of the Guild vote, Gannett has declared negotiations at an impasse. That lets the company unilaterally impose a contract --- the same contract the Guild just voted down.
Officials at the company routinely refuse to comment to City Newspaper about contract negotiations, so the letter informing the union of the impending contract imposition is interesting. It provides a rare glimpse into the mind of the company, and gives City readers a chance to hear the company's side of the story. Sort of.
The letter, written by Wendell Van Lare, Gannett's senior vice president for labor relations, doesn't elucidate much of the reasoning behind the company's demands. Nor does it make a serious plea for the Guild's members to reconsider their position. It's written in the tone of someone who holds all the cards and knows it.
It actually reinforces the Guild's contention that a 401K plan --- which the union wants and the company refuses to offer to Guild members --- is key to resolving the contract dispute. The union, whose members have to work in the same building as employees who do get a 401K, sees the company's denial as a slap in the face and a ploy to break the union. Not surprisingly, Van Lare describes it differently.
"It seems perfectly clear to me that the key issue that has kept the parties from reaching an agreement over these many years has been the Guild's insistence on adding a new benefit to the contract, to wit, the 401K, and the Company's refusal to do so," he writes.
Van Lare leaves the door open to negotiations just a crack --- if the union drops its demands and acquiesces to the company's.
Gannett would reconsider the decision to cease negotiations, Van Lare writes, "only in the event that the impasse is broken with a clear change of position on the part of The Guild with respect to the 401K issue, the need for scheduling flexibility, overtime compensation only over 40 hours, and the elimination of seniority as the controlling factor in layoffs."
Van Lare must know that the Guild won't take him up on the offer.
The letter lays the blame for the impasse squarely at the union's feet.
"A new contract would be preferable," he writes, adding this parting shot: "But, the way you chose to spin the Company's offer to your bargaining unit, and the overwhelming rejection of the final offer, after 14 years of bargaining, leads to the inescapable conclusion that further efforts to reach an agreement would be fruitless."
It's not yet clear what will come next. Two weeks ago, the union broke news of the letter's contents to its members in a newsletter. The newsletter contained this bleak assessment of their current predicament:
"It's indicative of Gannett's concern for its work force. At some point a smile and half-hearted 'Thank you' become too little for the hard work we all provide. We keep hoping our own management will intervene and choose to do what's right versus what's expedient. We'll see."
Those last two sentences seem to suggest that the union hopes Publisher Michael Kane or Editor Karen Magnuson will take their side against Gannett. Earlier this year, Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet and Publisher Jeffrey Johnson defied the Tribune Company's order to cut newsroom jobs. Baquet and Johnson eventually got canned for it.
But both men had said publicly they would reject any cuts that were ordered by corporate headquarters. Kane and Magnuson have been mum on the contract issue.
The Guild may be able to appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, if it thinks it can prove that the company didn't negotiate in good faith. But if it chooses that course, it'll have to hurry. Van Lare's letter indicated that Gannett would impose the contract beginning January 1.
It's unclear whether the union has lost its fight. Individual reporters have said privately that the Guild almost certainly won't risk a strike. In the mid-90's in Detroit, Gannett proved that it had the stomach to fight a bitter and protracted strike.
Despite the difficult position the union finds itself in, its members haven't lost their dark humor. From the Guild newsletter, here's an excerpt of their take on the Gannett letter:
"We won't recite all of Mr. Van Lare's misstatements and mischaracterizations here; they're too numerous. We can only assume that this letter was written with the idea that his corporate bosses would read it and find favor with what he says. (Must have worked. This week, he, along with some others in Gannett, was rewarded with 2,000 shares of Gannett stock for a job well done. Remember that when you're asked to bring your own food to a holiday pot luck next week.)"