Labor Tribune ratifies new contract

Apr 29, 2016 by

labortribThe United Media Guild finalized its new collective bargaining agreement with the Labor Tribune, adding to its list of settlements in recent months.

The contract featured 3 percent raises this year and next year for the Labor Tribune’s one full-time editorial employee and $750 signing bonuses for all members.

The contract allows the Labor Tribune to freeze pension benefits for its employees. In exchange, the company will contribute the money that would have gone to the pension into employee 401K plans instead.

Initially that regular 401K contribution will be $51.21 per week for each employee. It will increase 3 percent each year going forward.

Here are some highlights of the other deals:

At the Mid-South Organizing Committee, the new contract codified work rules, spelled out job duties, created a phone policy — employees get reimbursement if they don’t use a committee-issued phone — and enhanced grievance and arbitration language.

The contract also calls for step increases over a two-year span for these fast food organizers, from $32,000 to $40,000. In addition, there is a $150 monthly stipend for Organizer 2s, a $250 monthly stipend for leads-in-training and communication specialists and $350 stipend for leads.

At Truthout, the big battle at this progressive digital program was over disciplinary protections, of all things. We were able to maintain key protections and gain staff raises if certain financial benchmarks are reached.

It also created a mechanism for employees to suggest fundraising improvements at the financially strapped operation.

Last year our members at Missouri Jobs with Justice agreed to a new deal that featured immediate pay increases of up to $4,000, then a 3 percent raise in 2016 and a 2 percent bump in 2017.

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Not since David slew Goliath . . .

Apr 5, 2016 by

umglogoOn January 28, Rockford Register Star Copy Editor Paula Buckner was discharged for “rude and disrespectful” comments to coworkers.  Buckner, who worked at the paper for 22 years, had the temerity to comment on how the newly formatted obits looked (she said they looked “like shit”) and question their oversized appearance.

**NOTE:  The Register Star recently went with a larger font on its obits and now squares them off as well.  Employees and readers alike don’t approve of the change and remark that it makes their paper look “really small town.”  This change gouges families by forcing them to buy bigger (and therefore more expensive) obits.

A management executroid was on hand during the exchange and informed Buckner the change to the size of obits was so older readers could see them easier.  Her reply (which I love, btw) was, “We had old people 20 years ago and we just now figured out that they have difficulty reading 8 or 9 point type?”

Days later, the paper called in Buckner and gave her a letter which cited other instances of her speaking out and terminated her.  The Guild, in turn, claimed that Buckner was a conscientious employee and pointed out that her colorful remarks were always about the quality – or lack thereof – of the work product and filed a grievance demanding her reinstatement.  The parties are now headed to arbitration.

**NOTE:  Even though we have not yet completed negotiating a contract at the Register Star, we are able to file and arbitrate grievances as a result of a mutual agreement signed and made enforceable on 2-24-15. 

In the past, when a bargaining unit member would depart, their unemployment insurance was always contested by the paper (but after a cursory review, the departed employee would still receive it).  I’d remarked on more than one occasion just how pernicious I’d thought their position was, only to be told that it was something they (the Register Star) were required to do by their insurance company and assured that, if anyone didn’t qualify and then appealed, the paper would never object or voice opposition (thus ensuring that the employee would qualify to receive their unemployment).

After Buckner was terminated, she filed for unemployment insurance.  As usual, the paper contested her unemployment but, this time, her case was rejected.  She then filed an appeal and it was at this point that we all got to see just how truthful Register Star management is in matters of employee relations.

The appeal hearing was conducted over the phone as a conference call.  The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) was in Chicago, Buckner was home and also on the call were: Register Star Executive Editor Mark Baldwin (seriously), Managing Editor Ann Durocher (I kid you not), HR Director Mona Kidd, the executroid who was present at the verbal exchange and a freakin’ corporate attorney from GateHouse (for those of you keeping score at home – that makes it five to one)!

Several of the Register Star representatives spoke and Paula replied to each, giving her version of events.  It was very matter of fact and the ALJ said that he would render a decision soon and that everyone should expect to hear from him in about a week.

One week later a letter arrived.

From the letter:

Conclusion:  820ILCS 405/602A provides that the term “misconduct” means the deliberate and willful violation of a reasonable rule or policy of the employing unit, governing the individual’s behavior in performance of his work, provided such violation has harmed the employing unit or other employees or has been repeated by the individual despite a warning or other explicit instruction fro the employing unit.

The Claimant made in error in judgement.  She did not set out to harm her Employer.  She did not realize that her actions could result in her discharge.  She had not been warned about this specific issue.  She did not raise her voice.  It was an isolated incident of little severity.

There was no competent evidence which could establish that the Claimant willfully and deliberately violated any company rule or policy of the Employer or that the Claimant’s actions caused harm to the Employer.  The Employer has failed to establish that the Claimant deliberately set out to violate the Employer’s reasonable rules or policies.

Based upon the preponderance of evidence presented at the hearing, and considering THE CREDIBILITY OF THE WITNESSES WHO TESTIFIED (emphasis is mine), it was concluded that the Employer failed to establish that the Claimant was discharged for Misconduct connected with work within the meaning and intent of Section 602A of the Act.

WHILE THE EMPLOYER MAY HAVE HAD ECONOMIC OR PERSONAL REASONS FOR THE CLAIMANT’S DISCHARGE (again, emphasis is mine), these reasons fail to constitute Misconduct as defined by the Act.

Decision: The Local Office determination is SET ASIDE.  Pursuant to 820 ILCS 405/602A, the Claimant is eligible for benefits, as to this issue only, from 1/31/2016″

A complete victory for the good guys!

Next item on the agenda is Paula’s arbitration hearing, where her union will argue for reinstatement and full back pay.  We are currently in the process of selecting an arbitrator.  Stay tuned.

 

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Press Club to hold “Trump Effect” panel discussion

Apr 5, 2016 by

United Media Guild member Aisha Sultan, a columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, will moderate a Press Club panel discussion on “The Trump Effect” at noon, April 28 at the Pasta House in University City, at 8213 Delmar.

Joining her on the panel are fellow UMG member Kevin McDermott, a Post-Dispatch reporter; UMG retiree Jo Mannies, a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio; and Jason Rosenbaum, a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

How has the GOP frontrunner changed politics, the media and the electorate? Will the angry voters decide this election? How has the frontrunner’s popularity impacted local and state elections this year? The panel will discuss these questions and others created by the Trump phenomenon.

Tickets are $14 for Press Club members and $17 for non-members and guests. RSVP by April 27 at 314-449-8029 or at info@stlpressclub.org.

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Why analysts should doubt New Media/GateHouse stock

Feb 28, 2016 by

After GateHouse Media was reborn as part of the larger New Media Investment Group, analysts were bullish on the stock’s potential.

The company has plowed forth on a buying spree, becoming one of the few big players left in the newspaper industry. On his fourth quarter earnings call with analysts, New Media CEO Michael Reed said the company could spend up another $360 million on acquisitions this year.

Even after giving a glowing earning report and paying another healthy dividend, though, New Media stock dipped to $15.26 per share Friday — well below its 52-week high of $25.62 and about one-third of the long-term price some analysts predicted the stock should reach.

What’s up with that? Writing for Poynter.org, Rick Edmonds observed:

Some commentators have doubted whether New Media’s strategy will work as well at bigger papers it bought in Columbus and Providence as it has with earlier additions of smaller papers.

In the conference call with analysts, Reed argued that the market undervalues New Media. The newspaper sector, he said, is “out-of-favor and fragmented,” and that leads to New Media being “misunderstood.”

But is it really misunderstood? Or is the market wary of a newspaper company that buys and plunders properties, seeking maximum quarter-to-quarter cash flow while risking accelerated erosion of readership and advertising revenues? At some point, doesn’t the company have to grow the bottom line?

New Media puffed up its fourth quarter numbers with a $54 million cash infusion from flipping the Las Vegas Review-Journal to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who bought the newspaper to pursue a personal agenda.

That was a nice windfall for the company, but raised serious questions about its commitment to credible journalism. First it tried to get reporters at the Review-Journal to do Adelson’s bidding by investigating Las Vegas judges. Then GateHouse executive David Arkin tried to get journalists at its Sarasota newspaper to investigate the judges.

New Media has since scaled back its management agreement in Las Vegas and backed away from the mess, but not before its egregious ethical lapses drew extensive national coverage in both the industry and the mainstream media. The controversy triggered rumblings of an unhealthy rift between Reed and Kirk Davis, the New Media COO and GateHouse CEO.

It’s no wonder the company feels compelled to assemble its editors for an April meeting in Chicago for a journalism refresher course. Clearly upper management needs it.

Of course, New Media/GateHouse management is creating even greater concerns of interest to investors. Let’s run down the list:

Core product deterioration. New Media/GateHouse has cut newsroom operations to a fraction of their former size. Even after emerging from bankruptcy flush with cash, it continued running off veteran reporters, photographers and editors and hiring entry level replacements — often at less than a living wage. The constant cutting and churning keeps diminishing the “strong and trusted local brands” the company touts to investors. Outsourcing copy editing functions to its Austin design center has further diminished content quality, since ever-changing workforce there is far removed from the communities New Media/GateHouse newspapers serve. In many cases editors have little knowledge of the people, places and issues in the stories they process. As a result, more obvious errors end up in print.

Print advertising vulnerability. New Media/GateHouse is not the only newspaper company fretting about the future of print advertising (22.1 percent of New Media revenue in 2015) and “preprint” advertising (nearly 14 percent). The company reported double-digit declines in both categories in its fourth quarter statement, which was typical in the industry. But the company’s increasing desperation to slow the decline has led to heavy management and salesperson churn. The implementation of new non-compete clauses has prompted experienced salespersons with strong advertiser relationships to leave the company rather than limit their future employment opportunities.

Classified advertising vulnerability. The company has stemmed decline in this area by inflating the cost of obituaries to families through multiple means, including blowing up the font size of the obits. This is still another short-term fix with potential long-term ramifications.

Digital advertising/Propel “growth levers.” While the company is making some digital strides, many of the New Media/GateHouse markets are too small to value Propel and the company’s bigger markets feature heavy competition from similar products. Propel remains an insignificant revenue source (2.6 percent) for the company. Desperate to grow digital advertising and Propel, the company’s ever-changing management team devises aggressive sales plans that often overreach — causing long-standing local print advertisers to spend nothing instead of more.

Circulation revenue vulnerability. Circulation produced 31.6 percent of the New Media revenue. While circulation is plummeting at many properties, the company offset that decline by raising subscription and newsstand prices and making subscribers pay extra for “premium sections” that are essentially advertorial fluff. That, in turn, causes potential for further readership erosion. How long can New Media prop up this category?

Union-directed subscribers and advertiser boycotts. Even while spiraling into bankruptcy in its earlier incarnation, GateHouse Media maintained reasonable relationships with its unions. After its rebirth as the cash-flush New Media Investment Group, the company has established a more strident tone toward its employees, many of whom have endured wage freezes of eight or more years.  The company is steadfastly refusing to offer raises during its ongoing negotiations with various unions. Employees will have no choice to establish an economic value for labor peace through orchestrated boycotts. Convincing local businesses not to advertise in a newspaper is not difficult, since many have been moving away from print anyway. Convincing readers to quit subscribing isn’t hard, either, giving the soaring subscription and newsstand prices and the glaring content reduction. What is hard is regaining advertisers and readers after they leave. At the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., for instance, the loss of just one key advertiser would cost the company far more money than settling with United Media Guild on a fair contract for its members. That market is well aware of the UMG’s years-long fight for a first contract, thanks to a radio commercial blitz, outreach to community and labor leaders, public demonstrations and direct meetings with some of the SJ-R’s biggest advertisers. Triggering public campaigns in markets like Springfield, Rockford, Providence and Erie would be one more example of how New Media/GateHouse risks long-term damage while trying to vacuum every last nickle and dime from its properties.

Union-directed corporate campaign. John Levin, chairman and chief executive of Levin Capital Strategies L.P., has provided a blueprint for a corporate campaign against New Media Investment Group. He called for more independent directors for the companies spun out of Newcastle Investment Corp. to reduce the obvious conflicts of interest. The external management structure of these spin-offs reward the money guys backing the enterprise, Wes Edens and the Fortress Investment Group LLC, while putting shareholders in some peril. Levin notes that Fortress gets paid to build size, not to necessarily create better performance. As Levin noted about another Fortress property, New Senior Investment Group, perhaps a buyer will come along and save the company for the long haul. The same could occur for New Media. Shareholders should either hope that happens or properly time their exit before these executives crash the stock, as they did with GateHouse Media. Either way Fortress would come out fine, thanks to the hefty management fees it collects along the way.

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Regarding the SJ-R vote:

Jan 30, 2016 by

Three ballots were distributed at last night’s contract ratification vote in Springfield, IL.  Two dealt with how parts of the contract – should it be ratified – would unfold.  The first set of options was to determine how the bargaining unit wanted to ‘catch up’ with the premium rates the other (non-union) SJ-R employees are paying (because, during bargaining, our people have not had their premiums increased) and our members voted unanimously for the less expensive ramp up.

The second ballot was to determine if our members wanted to receive a $600 bonus upon signing the contract and then another $600 next year and the following year.  Or they could vote to have a union shop and dues check off.  The message from GateHouse was clear and unmistakable:  We’ll give you $1800 to have an open shop and a weak union.  And again, UMG members voted as a bloc  – and REJECTED the attempted bribe.

Finally, the third ballot was to accept or reject the contract – with whatever options the membership had chosen.  And once more, the vote was unanimous (ed note:  The vote was conducted by secret ballot with election tellers who were not part of the bargaining team).

We are scheduled to sit down with GateHouse again in Springfield at 10:00 a.m. on February 11.

 

 

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lifted from the Illinois Times. . .

Jan 30, 2016 by

Friday, Jan. 29, 2016 09:28 pm

Shove it

SJ-R newsroom rejects contract

Newsroom employees at the State Journal-Register tonight rejected a final contract offer from GateHouse Media, the company that owns Springfield’s daily newspaper.

The vote was unanimous, according to Shannon Duffy, administrative officer for the United Media Guild, which represents newsroom workers. There are approximately 25 workers in the bargaining unit.

Reporters and other newsroom employees have gone without raises since GateHouse purchased the paper eight years ago, and pay increases had been a sticking point in contract negotiations between the company and the union. Employees voted to form a union in 2012.

Management offered $600 annual bonuses for the life of a three-year deal, Duffy said, but that was contingent on an open shop, meaning that employees would not be compelled to join the union or pay union dues. Management and the union had tentatively agreed to a number of working conditions, including rules governing transfers and promotions, leaves of absence, holidays and rules governing discharge and discipline, according to the union.

Clarissa Williams, SJ-R publisher, declined comment.

Union leadership had recommended that the bargaining unit reject management’s latest proposal, which Duffy said was a “last, best and final offer.”

“It (the offer) would not create a better workplace,” union leaders wrote in a Jan. 27 memo to union members. “It would simply codify the one you are trying to change. GateHouse has been buying up properties like it is the Golden Arches of journalism. That doesn’t mean newsroom staffers should be tied to a McDonald’s pay scale.”

The McDonald’s comparison was an obvious reference to the plight of Dean Olsen, an SJ-R reporter and union organizer who took a job at the fast-food chain to make ends meet. Olsen’s moonlighting at McDonald’s, first reported by Illinois Times, received national attention on websites and blogs devoted to journalism.

“How crazy is it that just as the $15 an hour minimum wage movement is building steam for fast food workers, GateHouse insists on a minimum rate of $13 an hour for fulltime journalists and $11 for part-timers?” union leadership wrote in the memo. “Will there be fries with that?”

Union leaders in the memo said that GateHouse was too quick to present a final offer.

“(F)or some reason, this company seems to have given up trying to work out differences on the remaining issues,” union leadership wrote. “Instead, it presented – in our view very prematurely – a final offer, insisting that it get its way on all unresolved issues.”

Although the offer presented by management was a final one, Duffy said that another negotiating session is scheduled for Feb. 11. Presuming no accord is reached, management could declare an impasse and install all or part of the conditions in the final contract offer, Duffy and Olsen said. The union could appeal a declaration of impasse to the National Labor Relations Board, asking for a ruling that no impasse exists, they said. If the NLRB rules that there is no impasse exists, negotiations would continue, they said.

“The ball truly is in their court right now,” Duffy said. “We remain committed to getting a contract.”

If an impasse is declared and the company installs provisions in its final offer that have been rejected by employees, options for the union range from going out on strike to organizing a boycott of subscribers or advertisers or both, Duffy said.

“It gets really interesting from this point forward,” he said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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UMG honors journalism, activists at Local Meeting

Jan 29, 2016 by

The United Media Guild honored journalist MicheleMunz Munz and several of its activists at a Local Meeting Thursday night in St. Louis.

Munz won the Terry Hughes Award for her distinctive reporting and writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A panel of past Terry Hughes Award winners selected her work to be honored.

Hughes was a Post-Dispatch columnist who died of breast cancer in 1991 at age 36. Her columns included the perspectives of everyday people and their struggles.
The judges noted that Munz often writes stories about the sick and disabled, people who typically remain out of view from the quick pace of modern journalism. She wrote about a deaf 22-year-old woman who learned she would also go blind; a Ballwin mother who makes capes to make children with illnesses feel like superheroes; and a Washington University physician who created a charity to give school-age girls in Ethiopia sanitary pads.

The following awards were given to UMG activists:

Steward of the Year: Our unit chair at the Pekin Daily Times, reporter Miranda Henderson, was honored for her diligent work in enforcing our contract at that GateHouse Media property. Among the recent issues she assisted us on: getting employee bonuses paid properly, as dictated by our latest contract, and integrating employees of other GateHouse publications in the area into the Pekin unit.

Solidarity Award: Our members at the Mid-South Organizing Committee — the organizers of the “Fight for 15” movement for fast food workers — were honored for sticking together through the negotiation of a more comprehensive collective bargaining agreement. The unit has members working across the Midwest and the South. Unit chair Shawnte Poynter, currently working out of Little Rock, accepted the award for the group.

Activist of the Year: Photographer Max Gersh, our unit chair at the Rockford Register Star, was honored for his persistent leadership in the face of company harassment. Twice the UMG filed unfair labor practice charges against the companies for actions against Gersh. To settle the charges, the company not only withdrew its disciplinary actions, it agreed to progressive discipline language that took effect while we are still bargaining our first contract. Gersh first joined the Guild as an intern for the Post-Dispatch.

Guilder of the Year: Our highest activist honor went to UMG treasurer John Mues, a member since 1972. He is on his second lengthy tour on our Executive Committee. He has served on our Post-Dispatch bargaining committees, been highly active on our corporate campaigns, assisted on various organizing drives, participated in countless social justice actions and most recently assisted our efforts to streamline our Local administrative operation. In short, John has always been there for the Guild and his co-workers whenever help is needed.

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GateHouse Media’s utter disregard for quality journalism

Jan 10, 2016 by

It’s never good news when New Media Investment Group, the parent company of GateHouse Media, buys your newspaper.

Wholesale newsroom cuts and outsourcing come next, as we have seen at five UMG-represented newspapers: The Peoria Journal-Star, State Journal-Register of Springfield, Rockford Register Star, Freeport Journal-Standard and Pekin Daily Times.

The Columbus Dispatch is a classic example. After New Media/GateHouse bought the newspaper, it set out to slash $10 million in costs within two years.

The Providence Journal has suffered similarly suffered under New Media/GateHouse ownership. After the newspaper changed hands, the Journal immediately laid off prominent journalists and scheduled the outscourcing of its entire copy desk.

Like so many other New England newspapers the company owns, the Journal is losing its identity through all the consolidation. Then there is the issue of advertorial content and the newsroom pressure to produce stories about advertisers.

The UMG is seeking journalism integrity language in our first contracts at the Register Star and the State Journal-Register. But negotiations have been difficult.

The company has become increasingly hostile toward the Guild in the past few years, drawing unfair labor charges from the NLRB in Rockford and again in Springfield.
State Journal-Register management is upset that our members at the State Journal-Register are gathering public support in their quest for a fair first contract.

And if all this is not bad enough, New Media/GateHouse is willing to flip properties to an agenda-driven owner — and then help that owner pursue the agenda at the cost of journalistic credibility.

It recently sold the Las Vegas Review-Journal, to the family of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson for a handsome profit — 69 percent by its own reporting. The sale was initially shrouded in secrecy.

But New Media/GateHouse continued managing the property and attempted to orchestrate an investigation of Las Vegas judges, including one presiding over litigation against Adelson.

Eventually a newspaper tied to the new Review-Journal ownership — but outside the New Media/GateHouse empire — printed a dubious story.

This fiasco drew national attention and forced the company to undertake an image clean-up operation.

But even after that move, journalists were essentially told to go easy on the newspaper’s new owner.

Industry analyst Ken Doctor noted that top company executives created a credibility crisis:

Kirk Davis, COO of New Media and CEO of Gatehouse Media LLC, has been publicly quiet, though associates say he now understands the depth of the controversy. Mike Reed, New Media Investment Group’s CEO and the company’s chief acquisitor, has so far shown himself to be tone-deaf to the multiple controversies. Largely declining comment, he told the Review-Journal little. It reported its conversation this way: “He also sidestepped when asked if his company or the casino mogul had already influenced editorial decisions made by Review-Journal Publisher Jason Taylor. ‘I don’t have a comment on that,’ Reed told a reporter. ‘My recommendation is focus your energy on making the brand stronger.’”

A newspaper brand, though, is nothing without the trust of its readers or its community, and that trust has been put into question.

This is what can happen at the dangerous intersection of vulture capitalism and journalism. Media expert Jay Rosen did an excellent job chronicling the whole sordid affair with this comprehensive blog post.

Rosen had this observation:

Gatehouse Media is the one who ordered R-J journalists to investigate three Nevada judges, one of whom turned out to be the presiding judge in a lawsuit against Sheldon Adelson’s company. When asked about it by reporters, Michael Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Corp., the parent company of GateHouse Media, declined all comment on whether Adelson was involved. That was a real confidence builder!

Reed said the effort was part of a “multistate, multinewsroom” investigative effort initiated by GateHouse. Really? What was this project all about? Reed said he did not know who started it or who approved it. Weird. Big investigative efforts are launched but nobody at this company knows why, or who gave the order.

We will continue reminding New Media/GateHouse shareholders that quality journalism is essential to the company’s future.

New Media/GateHouse is not committed to the long-term quality of its properties. GateHouse Media collapsed once under $1 billion in debt, rendering its stock worthless.  Then it emerged from bankruptcy as an even bigger and more ambitious company — New Media Investment Group — spun off from another Fortress Investment Group entity, Newcastle Investment Corp.

Once again it was run by Michael Reed and Kirk Davis. It is managed externally by the folks at Fortress, who collect management fees for building a bigger business, not necessarily a better one.

The Clark Street Value had some concerns about the external management arrangement when New Media Investment Group was born.

The blog noted: “The management fee is based on assets which essentially incentivizes them to increase the asset base irrespective of the price they pay for the assets, and . . . the incentive fee may cause the manager to take unnecessary risks as their payoff is skewed to the upside and they don’t participate equally in the downside.”

Sure enough, last year John Levin, chairman and chief executive of Levin Capital Strategies L.P., sent an open letter to Fortress co-chairman Wesley Edens expressing concern about the eternal management of New Media and two other companies spun off Newcastle.

As the Cole Group noted in its media newsletter:

Levin is calling for Edens and Fortress to separate management of these companies, which will force the chief executives like Reed to focus on all the shareholders, not just Edens. Additionally, Levin wants more independent directors.

That sounds like a great idea in the wake of the Review-Journal fiasco that exposed Reed’s lack of concern over this astonishing scandal.

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