The union representing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom employees files first unfair labor complaint against ownership in decades

“They cannot violate federal law with impunity,” a union spokesperson said of the paper’s owners. “We will not allow them to do that.”

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Updated at 12 p.m. 

The union representing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom employees has confirmed what it’s calling the first unfair labor complaint filed against ownership in decades.

The filing, submitted to the National Labor Relations Boardwas obtained by The Incline on Friday, one week after it was filed by The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh – CWA Local 3806, which represents 150 staff at the Post-Gazette. Those staff include reporters, photographers, artists, paginators, web managers, videographers and copy editors.

The issue is this: The union says the paper is refusing to pay an increase in employee health care premiums in the middle of ongoing contract talks. The union says that amounts to a violation of the law. (The Post-Gazette’s owners disagree, though they did not respond to The Incline’s requests for comment.)

“They cannot violate federal law with impunity. We will not allow them to do that,” Michael A. Fuoco, an enterprise reporter at the PG and president of the CWA Local 3806, said of ownership at the Toledo, Ohio-based Block Communications, Inc.

Both sides have been negotiating to replace a labor contract that expired in March, Fuoco said. The union says the company is legally required to maintain the benefits and wages of the expired contract until a new one is inked.

“It went up 5 percent in January 2017, too, and the company covered it as required by the contract, which is now expired,” Fuoco said. “Federal law requires them, regardless of cost, to maintain all wages and benefits, including health care coverage, to be maintained at status quo as long as negotiations are ongoing.”

Instead, the union says ownership at Block Communications, Inc. announced it would not pay a premium increase of 5 percent, “coincidentally what the contract required them to do in prior years,” Fuoco added.

The union says ownership’s refusal to pay the 5 percent increase means it will fall to employees to cover the cost. The union claims this amounts to an indirect pay cut and that federal labor laws don’t allow changes in wages, hours, working conditions, or other subjects of collective bargaining during contract talks. That is unless both sides reach an impasse or unless the union prevents the parties from reaching a deal.

In Pittsburgh, The Newspaper Guild says it has prevented no such deal from being struck.

Fuoco continued, “Our position is that it is the benefits that must be maintained, regardless of how much of an increase there is.” It’s unclear if the National Labor Relations Board will agree.

Phone calls to the attorneys representing Block Communications, Inc. before the NLRB were not returned. Emails sent to Deb Sacco, the Post-Gazette’s assistant to the chairman and publisher, and Publisher John R. Block were not responded to. Calls to representatives of the NLRB in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh were also not returned.

In a letter sent to the presidents of the Post-Gazette’s unions, the company says that “under Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s [previous] collective bargaining agreement with the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh that provides for the company’s participation in the fund, there is no provision for any increase in its contribution to the fund.”

Post-Gazette ownership added: “There is no contractual mechanism for raising that contribution rate for 2018.”

Fuoco told the Pittsburgh Business Times that the company’s refusal to cover the hike will result in a monthly rate increase for the Guild of about $10,000 and that the employees’ benefits will be reduced effective April 1.

The union says this is a failure by the company to maintain the status quo and therefore a violation of labor laws.

Fuoco said Post-Gazette newsroom employees also haven’t seen a pay raise in more than 12 years and during that time saw their wages cut by 12 percent for nine years and 10 percent for the past three years.

“In essence, we made 10 percent more in 2006 than we do now,” Fuoco said in an email. “The Guild and other unions — Teamsters, pressmen, advertising, mailers, etc. — have given the company $100 million per year in givebacks — job losses, pay cuts, benefit cuts, etc.”

Fuoco said the complaint filed with the NLRB represents the first unfair labor complaint filed against the Post-Gazette in decades and certainly in journalism’s new digital era.

“To my knowledge — and I’ve been here for 33 years — to my knowledge this is the first unfair labor practice [complaint] filed against the Post-Gazette,” Fuoco said by phone. “We did not do this lightly.” The Guild was formed in 1934.

Late last week, tension between the newsroom and publisher John R. Block, a member of the family for whom the ownership company is named, was revealed when the paper’s official Twitter account posted a tweet announcing Block’s request that the newsroom remove the word “shithole” from the first line of a story about President Trump’s use of the word.

Fuoco said he believed there was no connection between the prior week’s filing of the NLRB complaint and Thursday’s editorial-versus-ownership dispute.

Meanwhile, unions are exerting their influence — and finding a receptive audience — in prominent newsrooms elsewhere around the country, from Vox Media to The Daily Beast to the Guardian (U.S.) to HuffPost to Vice, just to name a few.

Columbia Journalism Review has described a “unionization wave across the industry,” one fed by consolidation that’s being fed by the technological shifts and changing economic realities facing the news business today.

In December, the billionaire owner of DNAinfo and Gothamist, two significant online news outlets in New York City, shut the sites down after a successful unionization vote by newsroom employees.

Then, earlier this month, newsroom employees at the Los Angeles Times voted on whether to form their own union for the first time in 136 years. Their votes are currently being counted by the NLRB and the results are expected later this week.

The Times’ vote came amid building tension between the paper’s newsroom and its new owners at Tronc, Inc., a digitally oriented re-manifestation of the Tribune Publishing Company. That tension helped feed what has become a public and at times contentious unionization effort there.

At the Post-Gazette, there is no shortage of similar acrimony on the part of the Newspaper Guild, which says the paper’s newsroom unfairly bears the brunt of ongoing belt-tightening measures.

“This is a company that loses money at this paper and at the Toledo [Blade] newspaper [which Block Communications, Inc. also owns] but has cable TV and radio stations which they bought when these papers were profitable,” Fuoco said. “Even with these losses, which they’re able to write off, their profits are $112 million to $140 million dollars. These people are not hurting. We are the ones who are hurting.”

He added, “Prices for everything have gone up. The only thing that hasn’t gone up is our wages. Now they want to cut our healthcare.”

The Post-Gazette is the only remaining daily newspaper in circulation in Pittsburgh and one of the largest in the state. It has an average weekday print circulation of 104,274.

In responding to the Newspaper Guild’s complaint, the NLRB will decide whether ownership is in violation of federal law, as the union has declared, or not.