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The 25 or so Washington Post staffers carrying signs in front of the paper on Wednesday, Oct. 18, chanted and spelled the word “respect,” but they weren’t afforded much by the downtown lunch crowd. A woman named Barbara stood across the street, catching a cigarette. She fixed her gaze on the shuffling protestors and suggested, “Haven’t they been reading their own paper? Good jobs are pretty tough to find right now.”
Last week’s sidewalk show of strength by members of Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild Local 35 was pretty weak, but the paper isn’t the hotbed of unionism it once was—which seems to be the underlying message of the Post‘s take-it-or-leave-it approach to negotiating a contract with 1,300 employees in its news, editorial, and commercial departments. The contract deadline, July 10, is long past, and there is no indication the two sides will settle soon.
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It’s been a rough year in the newspaper business, but Post employees point out that the paper continues to prosper on suburban growth even as its home base crumbles. The Post reported profits of almost $170 million last year and announced plans to build a new $250-million printing plant, but came up with the institutional equivalent of chump change for its employee raises.
The company’s most recent proposal called for a lump-sum payment of $2,000 in the first year and a $24-a-week raise in the second and third years of the agreement. The union wants all raises to be retroactive to the original contract date in July, but the company has refused, saying the union and its members must suffer the consequences of not having reached an agreement earlier. On Oct. 10, members of the guild voted 185-21 not to accept the company’s current offer. The size of the raise and retroactivity—or the lack of it—pushed a couple-dozen guild workers out onto the street last week.
As might be expected from any coven of Posties, the demonstrators got a little wordy in their protests. “How can the Post preach fairness to others? Join us, join us, sisters and brothers,” went one particularly large mouthful.
Much of the antagonism in the current contract talks centers around Frank Havlicek, Post vice president for industrial relations and environmental services. Havlicek and the union have worked out a number of tough issues, but when the union voted down the contract offer, it expressed “no confidence” in Havlicek and asked that a federal mediator be named. Havlicek reportedly has the negotiating mien of an Uzi and an attitude to match; he recently pointed out that the company not only saw fit to provide a room where the union could meet, it also provided coffee and doughnuts. Hard-core union members feel jobbed by Havlicek because they went along with the company on some very prickly issues—including electronic publication, flexible work assignments, and changes in health insurance—with the expectation there would be good money at the end of the negotiations. They were infuriated when they found out what the company actually had in mind for raises.
Jamie Ward Black is the chair of the negotiating committee. In between chants on the sidewalk, she said her union is not happy with the company’s posture at the table.
“We feel that we were fooled, blinded by the things that they stated. We understood their need for flexibility, but we thought they would come back with more money, and they didn’t,” she said. Black said the membership “overwhelmingly rejected” the company’s offer, but that’s not how Havlicek sees it. “That’s 14 percent of the union membership. I call that an underwhelming sort of vote,” he says.
He’s got a point. Most guild members have remained on the sidelines, hoping that the contract will blow over and they can get back to bitching about story placement and dimwitted editors. Various union members made a beeline for downtown salad bars rather than taking up the sidewalk gauntlet with their guild brothers and sisters; most offered only furtive smiles in response to requests to walk the line. But some of the lions of battles-gone-by at the Post remember how it used to be. Assistant foreign editor Lewis Diuguid stopped circling long enough to say,“I like it out here. It makes you feel good.” But then Diuguid went on to suggest, “I have an awful feeling that the Post has a long-term objective of getting the guild out of the building altogether. We’re not going to let that happen. That’s another reason we’re out here marching.”
The two sides meet with a federal mediator this week.