Labor's Pain

Why it's unlikely there'll be a strike at the Chronicle this summer

Michael Cabanatuan is the Chronicle's transportation writer and local president of the Media Workers Guild, and today, a bright day in February, in a cafe just down the street from the paper, he is also more than a little nervous. "Mind if I sit there?" he asks me. He nods to my seat, which is facing the front door. "So I can see who comes in," he explains.

These are indeed edgy days for the Chronicle's unions. With the paper's labor contracts up in July, they now face a near-impossible task: maintaining what they describe as some of the best contracts in the industry in the teeth of what they acknowledge to be one of the worst newspaper slumps anywhere. The Chroniclereportedly lost more than $60 million last year, a figure that the guild's financial examiner more or less confirmed. To add to the unions' problems, the paper's drivers sewed up a contract supplement two years ago, leaving the Teamsters -- and their leverage -- on the sidelines during these labor talks and all but declawing any threat of a strike.

And at the other end of the bargaining table, at least in spirit, is a publisher who's famous for his hard lines. "Definitely ... I amnervous," says Cabanatuan, whose guild is the paper's largest, representing nearly 1,000 employees in editorial, advertising, marketing, circulation, and customer service. "But I guess the easiest way to say it is, I was nervous before. My guess is that their strategy isn't going to be a whole lot different under [Frank] Vega. The picture's the same. And that's really what's driving this."

In March, the Chronicle outlined its demands to the guild, which noted in an online bulletin that "the company's proposal touches almost every section of the contract, and would affect every Guild-represented employee." Among the paper's demands: reduced vacation (considered one of the best aspects of the current contract, from a worker perspective, with employees of five years or more getting 25 days of vacation); no anniversary and birthday holidays; new provisions that would allow drug testing, competency testing, attendance standards, and use of performance appraisals for disciplinary purposes; and a no-strike clause, which would prohibit guild members from striking to support another Chronicle union. "It is important to remember that this is merely a proposal," the bulletin noted.

Today, a few months into their contract talks, both sides offer a picture of contentious, though not yet unpleasant, negotiations. "We're negotiating in very good faith right now, on both sides," Vega says. "I feel very optimistic that we will get contracts." Cabanatuan, seeming slightly more put-upon, describes the talks as a series of ups and downs. "Sometimes it seems really bad," he says. "Sometimes it seems like there's hope here. ... I'm still hopeful we can reach some kind of settlement." He adds in an e-mail: "So far I don't see Vega living down to his reputation as a ruthless, heartless union-buster. Is the company taking a hard line? Absolutely. Has it proposed things we don't like? Definitely. But much of what the company is asking for under Vega is what the previous publisher also whined about needing."

Still, there's no doubt the unions find themselves in a precarious bargaining position. Some point to the Teamsters' contract supplement, which was negotiated individually, and not by the Conference of Newspaper Unions, a group of seven unions representing Chronicleemployees. George Powell, of the Media Workers Guild, says simply that the deal "was not done in a normal way." (The mailers union also negotiated a supplemental agreement.)

In 2003, after the paper announced it hoped to reduce its workforce by 500 employees, the Teamsters at the Chronicle ratified a contract supplement that guarantees their job security through 2010; the deal also allows the paper to use independent contractors for distribution outside San Francisco. "We had something they wanted, and they had something we wanted," says Rome Aloise, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 853. "And if somebody tells you, 'OK, I have $55 million to give you for some of these concessions or to kick your ass with,' it's not hard for me to make the choice."

Says Steven Falk, the Chronicle's president and publisher at the time the deal was finalized: "Rome said, 'Steve, I'm not in the business of running a newspaper. If you say times have changed, and you now need to do things this way in order to be successful, you're the professional in that business. I accept that. Now let's get to the table and figure out how I can protect my members' interests while accomplishing what you tell me you need to do.'

"That's a different brand of union leadership. That's to be respected."

The deal suggests the labor environment has shifted considerably in the decade since the 1994 San Francisco newspaper strike, which was settled after 12 days and which the unions termed "an overwhelming success." (Unlike today, they presented a common front, negotiating their separate contracts as a collective.) In 1994, it was Secretary-Treasurer Andy Cirkelis of the Teamsters who led newspaper employees onto the streets. Today, the Teamsters' contract supplement means Aloise has no direct role in current negotiations, though he has offered his help with the talks and hopes the other unions will follow his lead in dealing with Chroniclemanagement. As Aloise points out, the Detroit strike demonstrated that a paper, even with a reduced staff and a protest outside the door, can continue to publish. A strike is no longer the trump card it once was, especially not when the Teamsters, the people who distribute the paper, say they can't guarantee "blind allegiance" to the other unions -- "thoughtful, investigated, and researched allegiance," Aloise says, but not blind.

"There is no guarantee [to the Chronicle] that we won't participate and respect the picket lines," he continues, "but it's at a major cost for my membership to do that, and ultimately, they'll decide what they're going to do. But it's going to be after I make the determination that those people talking about going on strike are doing it reasonably and logically. ... If we allow one of these small unions to go off half-cocked, we're our own worst enemies.

"I'm not sure that it's any longer in the members' best interest to be inflexible. A lot of people wish to characterize protection [for workers], which equals restriction, as good, and in some cases it is. But inflexibility in my mind, and in this day and time, is not good."

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