Press Herald for sale?

By JEFF INGLIS  |  August 24, 2006

A couple months after Knight Ridder announced it would sell itself off to the highest bidder, Blethen representatives at the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal introduced new proposals into ongoing contract-renewal talks with those papers’ respective unions. The proposals, which are still being disputed by the unions, would give the Blethens permission to take away tasks from union workers and assign them to contract or freelance workers. But the move that really upset union representatives was a provision that would let the company move those tasks back to full-time workers who would not have to be members of the union.

To union members, that means a person could be laid off, their job taken away and given to a contractor, and the company could later hire the contractor as a full-time staffer who would be outside the union. Over time — some estimate about 10 years; others worry it could be far less — the union would just wither away. It’s a move negotiators have called “union-bashing,” and company representatives have told the unions to expect the same provision to be demanded during next year’s contract-renewal negotiations with the union at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. (At all three papers, the unions represent not only reporters and lower-level staff editors, but also workers in layout, printing, advertising, circulation, and distribution.)

The move reversed the position the Blethen family had taken toward unions eight years ago, when buying the Maine papers from the Guy Gannett company: though they were not required to do so by any law or business rule, the Blethens agreed to honor pre-existing contracts with unions. Now, the lawyer for the Portland Newspaper Guild, John Richardson (yes, the one who also serves as Speaker of the Maine House), speculates that the anti-union shift is an effort “to make the papers as presentable as possible for a future sale.”

Stuck in the mud
Some industry analysts say the union-busting attempt is not necessarily an indicator of a pending sale. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute says management simply doesn’t like unions, even though organized labor is weaker because both unions and companies are less financially able to endure long strikes, unions’ ultimate weapon.

Most media companies don’t like unions, agrees Lou Ureneck, a 20-year Press Herald veteran now chairing the Boston University journalism department. “Unions increase costs and reduce flexibility for management,” he says.

“Flexibility” is exactly the buzzword the Blethen Maine Newspapers negotiators are using. An assistant to Blethen Maine CEO Chuck Cochrane returned a call to his office, saying the company would not comment on labor negotiations, which the company feels are “best resolved at the bargaining table.” In response to calls seeking comment on other aspects of this story, the assistant explained Cochrane “does not give interviews” as a general practice.

But representatives of the Portland Newspaper Guild were happy to talk. “We don’t understand their need to take everything away from our contract,” says Darla Pickett, chapter chairman at the Morning Sentinel.

The unions have asked for the company’s justification, and have gotten the response that the company wants “flexibility.” The company says “they have no plan . . . but they just want it,” says Mike Sylvester, the union’s executive director.

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