Volunteers

Fear, loathing, and the Chronicle's voluntary termination incentive program

The San Francisco Chronicle's labor accord with the Northern California Media Workers Guild was ratified by the union's sullen and defeated membership in July, but for anyone who doubted the ominous gestures in the 40-some pages of the contract -- all those "The Employer shall"s giving the thing a whiff of Mount Sinai -- the past three weeks have offered the clearest indication yet of what life will be like within a shrinking Chronicle. That is, angry and confused, and -- with longtime colleagues gathering up their geraniums and making for the door -- ever more uneasy.

On Sept. 8, the Chronicle sent out the first round of letters accepting buyout applications, part of a negotiated staff reduction program that will ultimately trim 120 jobs (at least 90 through buyouts, it appears). By the next morning, the buyout -- or what the suits have more frighteningly termed a "voluntary termination incentive program" -- was the most contentious facet of the relatively young labor contract. And in the weeks since, it has pointed up the new power dynamics at the paper: a bullied union crying foul; a Chronicle management team, under new Publisher Frank Vega, shrugging merrily; and a newspaper staff not sure whom to be angrier at, its neutered Guild or its callous management. "A train wreck" is how one veteran reporter describes the buyout program. (Most of the Chronicle reporters and editors we spoke with asked that we not use their names.)

Under the provisions of the buyout and the Guild's pension plan, employees age 55 and older get five weeks' pay for every year of service, up to 104 weeks' pay; those between 40 and 54 years old get four weeks' pay for each year; those 40 and younger get three weeks'. (More than 200 people applied for the program. Among those taking the buyout are religion writer Don Lattin, sportswriter Glenn Dickey, and, reportedly, editorial writer Ken Garcia.) At issue, though, was what the union had thought would be a 45-day period for applicants to decide whether they actually wanted to go through with the buyout, a feature of previous such programs, according to Guild president and transportation reporter Michael Cabanatuan. "Our understanding was that it was going to be the same way this time around," he says, and the union told its membership as much. An explanatory memo was posted on bulletin boards (and sent to management); it made mention of, among other things, the 45-day period.

Instead, beginning Sept. 8, some applicants who thought they'd have more time to mull the buyout received a letter saying they'd been accepted and were expected to clear out in the coming weeks. "There was massive confusion," Cabanatuan says, and not just among Guild employees. "Several higher-level managers were going around talking about how they thought [Human Resources] screwed up and sent out the wrong letters."

In a letter to Chroniclestaff on Sept. 16, Executive Vice President Gary Anderson addressed the confusion: "Some are questioning whether employees who opted for a voluntary termination may reconsider that decision for 45 days," he wrote. "The short answer is, no." As he went on to say, the 45-day period refers to a "statutory period" for considering whether to sign a waiver of an age-discrimination claim. Although the buyout figured into the Guild's contract, there was no mention of a 45-day period, and, as Anderson noted in his letter, the application form was fairly explicit. It read: "I may change my mind and withdraw my request to terminate my employment anytime prior to 5:00 P.M. August 31, 2005, the last day of the voluntary incentive program application period."

Cabanatuan maintains the Guild was deceived, possibly to further speed along the staff reduction program. "I wouldn't say that I trust the Chronicle, or I trust their negotiators, but there is a certain amount of trust at the bargaining table," says Cabanatuan, who emphasizes that even if there had been a genuine misunderstanding, management had every opportunity to set the Guild straight before Sept. 8. "You don't put everything in writing. You don't put all the details in there. If someone says they're going to do something and do it a certain way, you believe they're going to do that. I think maybe in the future we would do something different."

He goes on: "Did the institution misrepresent [the 45-day period]? I would say yes." One veteran Chroniclereporter puts it in starker terms: "How do you turn a program to give extra money to people who want to retire anyway into a genocide?" (In response, Chroniclespokeswoman Patty Hoyt says simply, "They're wrong." She adds that of the dozen employees who feel they've either been unfairly selected for a buyout or pushed into an early exit date, there have "only been a few [cases] that we were not able to work out.")

However the confusion arose -- whether through willful distortion or innocent misinterpretation -- the execution of the buyout program has done little to disabuse the staff of the perception of Chronicle management, in its efforts to shed the paper's losses (in excess of $60 million last year), as cold and cruel. "People are disappearing so fast," says one reporter, who admits she's thinking about leaving the paper. "It used to be that when somebody left, there was a party. People got together and bought gifts, put out a card, a party, or least got a drink. Here, people who have spent decades of their life [at the Chronicle] are walking out the door without any ceremony. Nothing. The message to me is that you're not a valued person at the paper. When they say, 'Give it your all,' you sort of think, 'Why?'"

Meanwhile, amid the fractious unfolding of the buyout program, the full implications of the Guild's contract -- described by the union at the time of its ratification as "terrible" -- seem to be dawning on the staff. "I knew [Vega] was going to be business first," the reporter above says, "but a lot of the cuts are so petty." For instance, she says, the paper no longer reimburses for computer glasses. "Ridiculous. Petty, petty, petty. The bottom line isn't helped by these penny ante chops and changes."

Moreover, the contract has "turned people against each other," she says. Under the terms of the accord, 43 Guild members, mostly assignment editors, were bumped into management roles, though not with the sort of benefits such a promotion might entail. In the Chronicle's "staff basket" -- an independent Yahoo! newsgroup for the paper's Guild members -- people have hotly debated whether the 43 employees exempted from the union contract should now have access to the basket. "It did sting a little bit," says one of the editors. "The contract showed that things are contentious in the world of Guild versus management. Officially, I'm management, so I'm not surprised that that's transferred to me. Does it hurt personally? Yes, of course." (It's a paranoid time, too, for the newly exempt editors, who now, without the protections of a labor agreement, can be fired at will. "Remember, I'm now exempt," the editor above says, cautioning Dog Bites about e-mailing. "It's a brave new world.")

Says the Chroniclereporter who's considering looking elsewhere for work: "I've found the whole thing very disillusioning. ... With this contract, seeing how people are being disrespected, it's a job, suddenly, where it used to be your life. People's hearts are not in it. I don't know how they can expect productivity if they've cut out people's hearts." (Tommy Craggs)

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