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Star's union plans aggressive labor fight with Gannett

September 2, 2011

The union that represents 120 local editorial and building services employees at The Indianapolis Star has launched a very public labor battle against McLean, Va.-based Gannett Co. Inc., criticizing the corporation's management of the newspaper.

The Indianapolis Newspaper Guild this week began its offensive with a new website and radio ads. It plans within three weeks to launch ads on billboards and buses, and to hand out leaflets at Indianapolis Colts games and other public events around Indianapolis.

Officials for the guild, who this week entered contract negotiations with Gannett, said they’re ready to spend more than "five figures" on the campaign.

“We’re going to be more visible and more vocal I think than at any other time in the guild’s history,” said Robert King, the union’s president and a reporter at the Star. “It’s going to be hard not to hear our message.”

The crux of that message is that Gannett is siphoning profits from the local newspaper to fatten the paychecks of Virginia-based executives while cutting wages of Star staffers as well as the size of the staff itself. Those moves are diminishing the news coverage for local residents who read the paper.

In public filings, Gannett disclosed that it paid Chairman and CEO Craig Dubow $9.4 million last year—double his 2009 pay—as the company laid off hundreds of workers and imposed wage cuts on thousands more. His pay included a $1.75 million all-cash bonus.

Gannett Chief Operating Officer Gracia Martore got $8.2 million, more than double her $4 million in 2009, according to a recent proxy statement. Her pay included a cash bonus of $1.25 million.

The new guild-produced Web site, SaveTheStar.com, implores local residents to help “Save Local News.” King said the objective of the site and broader publicity campaign is to alert Indianapolis area residents and Star customers what is happening to “their community’s newspaper.”

The website claims:

— The Star’s newsroom staff has been slashed by 36 percent.

— Vacated jobs almost never get filled.

— Pay at the Star lags behind 94 other union newspapers around the country.

— Talented journalists keep moving on.

— There’s a plan in the works to outsource jobs in the Star’s newsroom—most notably copy desk and design jobs—to  Louisville.

— The Star’s ability to fulfill its traditional watchdog role is being endangered.

“We are about to start the process of collective bargaining and fully intend to respect and honor that process,” Star President and Publisher Karen Crotchfelt wrote in an e-mail to IBJ. “We also are looking forward to reaching a new contract with the union as soon as possible. However, because we are beginning negotiations soon it would not be appropriate or proper to discuss in detail our negotiations with the union.”

When asked about the specific allegations made by the union, Crotchfelt declined to comment. Star Editor Dennis Ryerson did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Gannett has conducted four large layoffs in three years. In the most recent round of cuts on June 21, Gannett eliminated 700 jobs, about 2 percent of the company’s total work force.

The Star on June 21 laid off 62 employees, including more than 15 percent of its newsroom staff, a number that left King wondering why Indianapolis is being singled out for the biggest cuts.

The Star's newsroom had 136 employees after the latest round of layoffs, down from 230 in 2007.

In a June memo, Bob Dickey, Gannett’s head of community newspapers, blamed the company’s nationwide cuts on soft national advertising and a continued sluggish economy.

Gannett, which owns 82 newspapers, earned $263.7 million on revenue of $2.59 billion in the first half of this year. That compared with a profit of $325.2 million on $2.66 billion in revenue in the same period a year earlier.

“Each of our local media organizations faces its own market conditions, challenges and opportunities,” Dickey wrote in June. Therefore, it has been up to each local publisher to determine his or her unique course of action.”

Crotchfelt, who joined the Star in December, told IBJ shortly after the June 21 cuts that she did not receive financial incentives for trimming payroll.

The guild's idea for the website was born shortly after the June 21 layoffs, King said.

“We feel if Gannett is not going to protect and preserve this newspaper, we’re going to do our best to do that,” said King, who joined the Star in 2004. “We’ve been told the Star is still profitable, yet money is being taken out of this paper, and not being kept in this community.”

Mark Crouch, associate professor in Indiana University’s department of labor studies, said the guild’s approach is one of the most unusual he’s seen in decades of studying organized labor.

“While a union’s appeal to the public isn’t entirely new, I have never seen a campaign quite like this at a newspaper before,” Crouch said. “The timing, too, is unusual. Usually a union would wait until they’ve been sitting at the bargaining table for quite a while before they’d make a high-profile public appeal like this.

“This is a real pre-emptive strike. I think it shows that the traditional tactics with this union and with this management haven’t worked, so they’re striking out with something new and innovative.”

The money for the campaign will come from the guild’s reserves, King said, adding that additional resources could come from the union’s national affiliate, The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America.

“Now is such an important time, such a grave time, if that means spending down some of our reserves, we’re prepared to do that,” King said. “We can do more than we’re doing now, and the longer this goes on, the more noise we’ll make.”

Given’s Gannett’s push for cuts and its hard line with unions, Crouch said it is questionable that the local guild will be able to recoup much of recent concessions they've made, including a 10-percent pay cut.

When pressed about what Star staffers hope to gain from the campaign, King said, “I’m not going to get into specifics because we’re entering into negotiations.”
 

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