Vol XI, No. 27TNG/CWA Local 31041March 9, 2000

Retroactivity -- again

Retroactivity, the issue that caused the 1973 strike, is brandished anew by ProJo veep. Ryan letter promises "straight talk," but misses mark, with distorted history and facts.

Launching a new threat against the Guild, the company is suggesting that union members may not get retroactive pay raises after March 31.

Retroactivity was the key issue in the strike by the Guild in 1973.

The union walked out then to preserve its right to contest the company's withholding of back pay increases.

Despite a 13-day walkout, the union lost the disputed pay increases. But the willingness of union members to stand up to Journal management set the stage for a 20-plus year period mutual respect and fair contracts.

For the company to raise this issue now reinforces the Guild's view that the company's actions in the current negotiations are the most hostile to the union since the strike.

It also reinforces the union's contention that it is important to stand up to the company's attempts to frighten the Guild members into accepting a substandard contract offer.

The new threat is part of a March 7 mailing to union members by Mark T. Ryan, a Journal senior vice president, who wrote a letter that purports to provide "straight talk" about contract issues.

In the Guild's opinion, Ryan's letter does just the opposite. It distorts the record and the facts on every negotiating issue. These issues are be addressed in other sections of this newsletter.

Instead of suggesting ways to resolve the differences between the company and the Guild, Ryan seems bent on deepening the issues and provoking a wider fight.

Here's what he said:

"This letter has presented an opportunity for some straight talk that I hope will not only be heard but be believed. As you know, retroactivity as to wages expires on March 31, 2000. In addition, as Howard (Sutton) told you in his last letter, and I remind you here, our enhanced offer will not be on the table forever."

There are two threats:

  • One is not to pay retroactive wage hikes, beginning in April.
  • The other renews the company's threat that its latest contract proposal, "our enhanced offer," will not remain on the table indefinitely.
Taking the last point first, the union indeed hopes that the last offer will not remain on the table "forever."

The membership voted 354 to 28 in early February to reject that offer, and continues to seek a more acceptable and improved agreement.

Meanwhile, by raising the subject of retroactivity in this manner, Ryan is continuing the company's troublesome approach to bargaining: trying to coerce union members into accepting the company proposals without the traditional give and take of legal bargaining.

Here's how the contract's retroactivity provision works:

It guarantees that pay increases in a new contract will be paid three months into the new year following the expiration of the contract.

In other words, while bargaining continues, members keep working, and the company pays the difference between the old and the new wage scales in a lump sum after the new contract is ratified.

That contract provision also provides that retroactivity which is to be paid after March "must be mutually agreed upon by both parties when a new contract is signed."

It's an attempt to smooth out negotiations: anticipating that talks may continue beyond the official term of the old contract, without forcing the union to strike out of concern for a loss of wages.

At the same time, the provision assumes that when the parties do settle their differences that they can agree to pay all the wages for which union members have worked during the negotiations.

What happened 27 years ago is that the company used retroactivity as a club against the union, and, in fact, forced the union, which had accepted all of its other contract terms, to go on strike.

As it turned out, the union lost on that issue, and our members gave up months of retroactivity.

But the strike had the effect of strengthening the union. And rather than go through the turmoil of 1973 again, the company and the Guild were able to negotiate a series of beneficial contracts -- at least up until now.

Now, once again, the company seems to be using retroactivity issue as a weapon, calling on the union to knuckle under or, in effect, daring it to go on strike.

The Guild takes a different approach.

The union will continue to pursue negotiations that are fair to both parties.

While not ruling out a strike, the union won't lightly take such a serious step, and will ask members to vote for a walkout if and when such a tactic is in the Guild's and its members' best interests.

What are Publisher Howard Sutton and his aide Mark Ryan and the new Belo owners trying to do by raising the retroactivity question now?

Are they suggesting that beginning April 1, Guild members reduce their work effort by 3 percent, to match the threatened pay loss?

Are they trying to goad the union into a strike?

Are they trying to scare the union into accepting a contract with worse provisions than are enjoyed by other Journal workers?

Or are they simply being greedy?

1997 and NOW

The Guild never was offered the current version of Belo Corp. pension and 401k benefits in 1997.

* * *

Instead, the company proposed reopening talks on all fringe benefits mid-term in the contract, but without telling the union what it had in mind.

* * *

Now, the company is up to its old tricks: offering to reopen pension and 401k issues. But not spelling out the benefits it will offer.

In 1997, why didn't the Guild accept the best of the Belo Corporation benefits, namely the pension and 401k retirement plans?

The answer:

Because those plans weren't offered to the Guild.

Despite the contention by Mark Ryan, a company senior vice president, in a March 7 letter to Guild members, the union never "turned down" the Belo plans three years ago.

What the union was offered was a contract re-opener during the term of the now-expired contract, to discuss a range of unspecified fringe benefit changes. But what the company had in mind for new benefits was never explained. It's the same again this year.

The company, just as it did three years ago, has proposed to reopen bargaining two years down the road concerning retirement benefits. But what it might propose or be willing to agree to remains unclear.

This is one of the reasons the membership voted down the company's contract offer, 354 to 28.

Retirement benefits are a critical issue in the union's drive for a new contract.

That's because after the sale of the Journal to Belo Corporation, the company extended to non-Guild workers pension and 401k retirement plans that generally are considered superior to the Journal company plans.

Thus, for the new contract, The Guild has proposed that its members be offered a choice either of the current Belo retirement benefits, or the old Journal plans, depending on which would pay more in individual circumstances.

The Guild contends that by withholding the current Belo plans, Guild members could end up with a contract inferior to non-union workers. That's a tactic meant to turn Guild members against their union.

Ryan's explanation for why the company has refused to offer the Guild the retirement plans is this: "The reason is simple - the Guild had earlier turned them down. This same union leadership rejected a voluntary re-opener that included 401k and pension in 1997."

The implication is that the Guild blundered back then; that it could have had what it's seeking now, but turned down the opportunity.

That isn't what happened.

In 1997, the Guild and the Journal company were concluding negotiations for an updated contract, including the fringe benefit package.

At the same time, the newspaper had been sold to Belo. In March 1997, Journal negotiators indicated that Belo wanted them to reopen the entire subject of benefits sometime during the term of the new contract.

Up for grabs, the company said, would be the entire fringe package: pensions, 401k, medical and dental insurance, sick pay, short and long term disability, life insurance and parental leave.

If those reopened negotiations failed to result in an agreement, the Guild then would have a right to go on strike. Meanwhile, the company would have the right to impose its new benefits program on the Guild.

It was not clear what benefits the company would change, including pension and retirement plans. Even Company officials said they didn't know.

But if it did turn out that inferior benefits were proposed, the Guild would be in the position of going on strike to avoid the company imposing its plan, or swallowing the worse benefits.

As an alternative, the Guild suggested that the company agree to allow the Guild the same benefits extended to other Journal employees.

But the company rejected that out of hand.

The subject then came up in a dramatic March 13 confrontation that year between Guild members and Robert Decherd, Belo's chairman, who visited the newsroom before the merger.

Decherd was asked if Belo was trying to rejigger the negotiations. The chairman said no. He said the company was considering bringing non-union benefits more into line with Belo corporate provisions, but that the union negotiations were in the hands of the local managers.

Afterwards, the company offered the Guild two choices: 1) Reopen the benefits lineup during the contract term; 2) or sign a contract with the current benefit package intact for the next three years.

The negotiators were faced with two issues.

They did not know what the company might have up its sleeve in terms of benefits. They did not know then what the company would offer the non-Guild folks; nor did they know what would be offered the non-Guild workers would also be proposed for the Guild.

But they did know that the Guild had a good fringe package already, especially in terms of medical insurance, with three solid choices of health plans, and real controls on how much employees would have to pay for their share of insurance premiums.

After the contract was ratified by the members, the company extended Belo corporate benefits to non-Guild employees.

There were plusses and minuses. On the minus side, the company took away a paid holiday and instituted higher-cost health plans. On the plus side, the Belo pension and 401k seemed, on whole, to be more generous than the old Journal plans.

So now the Guild's proposal is to both open the Belo retirement plans to Guild members, and then to allow its members to choose either the old or the new plans, depending on which will benefit their individual circumstances the most.

The company, however, has steadfastly declined to discuss the Belo plans.

All that it has offered is to "re-open" negotiations in the second year of the contract. Once again, the Guild would be flying blind into uncharted territory.

And uncharted territory is danger, because we do know the company's track record so far in the current talks:

  • The Belo pension and 401k have NOT been offered to the Guild.
  • But the less appetizing aspects of the Belo benefits package have been "offered," and in fact, with negotiations still not over, the company has gone ahead and imposed them: a less generous and more expensive line-up of health plans; one less holiday.
Ryan's letter makes it seem that the company was oblivious to the Guild's interest in negotiating specific Belo retirement benefits, that only as the negotiations went on did they realized "that the 401k and pension was of such interest to employees."

The Guild members surveyed by the union made it known last year they wanted the Belo benefits, and the union made that clear both in its own communications and direction to the company negotiators what the bargaining priorities were from day one of contract talks.

Ryan goes on to say that "we struggled to find a way to meet this desire" that the company "went the extra mile" by offering another contract reopener.

If the company is "struggling" to find away to meet the interests of Guild members in those benefit it can negotiate them now, just as it has provided them to the other employees of the company.

Guild Leaders recounting these negotiations can be found on the union's website: http://www.riguild.org/glindex.htm. See the March 17, 1997, April 4, 1997 and May 2, 1997 issues.


In his letter to Guild members, company spokesman Mark T. Ryan discusses a number of issues. Here is the Guild's position on them:


Ryan says that the company has offered the Guild free parking or bus passes, and that the company finds it "amazing" that such an offer has been given a "negative spin."

What Ryan doesn't say is that the company wrote to the Guild that it reserved the right to change or cancel the free parking program at any time.

Of course the Guild wants free parking.

But it wants the terms in the contract. The company refuses to include the provisions in the contract.

The reason it's important to have the benefit written into the contract is that in case the company tries to change the benefit mid-contract, the Guild can appeal the decision.

In fact, the Guild currently does have some language in the contract that provides for subsidized parking. And as proof of the importance of written contract language, when the company refused to guarantee per diem subsidized passes to its parking garage, the Guild filed a grievance. The Guild won the resulting arbitration, which it estimates could force the company to pay union members as much as $400,000.

What the company is asking now is that in return for the non-contractual offer of free parking, that the Guild give up its present language.

Finally, Ryan notes that "we set up a strategy of unassigned spaces to accommodate as many of our employees as possible."

That's another reason the Guild wants to pin down the benefit in negotiations. Even without hundreds of Guild members included in free parking, the lots and garage are often crowded. A concern is that if the benefit is offered, how will parking spaces be allocated.

Even worse, the company plan denies any form of parking subsidy to part timer employees who work less than 22.5 hours per week. These are the people who are paid the lowest and are most disadvantaged by the company's plan.

Clearly, if the company were sincere in offering free parking, it would be willing to put it in writing.

The fact that it hasn't been willing to do so could mean that it might plan down the road just to drop or scale back the benefit.

Or it might be trying to set a precedent of bypassing the contract and the union when it comes to important benefits that affect the pocketbooks and safety of its employees.

Every time the company moves a benefit, such as parking, outside the contract, it gives it one more area where it can dictate terms rather than negotiate them.


In February, the company paid a 2.75 percent "profit performance" bonuses to non-Guild workers. That followed its announcement that there would be no bonuses paid the Guild under the "gainsharing" program in the current contract.

Ryan says that "unfortunately" gainsharing did not provide a 1999 payout. (The company has never communicated this to the Guild.)

Fortune had nothing to do with it.

The company has absolute power to set the gainsharing targets, and last year, it set them high enough to fail.

Speaking of fortune, Belo Corporation and The Journal had good years in 1999. Good enough for performance bonuses to non-Guild workers; not good enough for the Guild.


The company stopped withholding union dues from members' paychecks when it refused to extend the contract at the end of January.

Ryan says that under the National Labor Relations Act, that collection requirement disappears, along with arbitration and union security.

The Guild strongly disagrees and the national union's top lawyer is leading the appeal on this crucial issue.

Meanwhile, the union is setting up a dues collection program to ward off the company's attempt to disrupt the union's financials.


Ryan says that the company did not demand that outstanding grievances "go away as a condition of a new contract," but offered settle them.


The company proposed settling some grievances, such as the parking arbitration award. It offered Guild members denied subsidized parking $10,000; but the union believes it really owes as much as $400,000.

But for the most part, the company arrogantly demanded that most grievances and unfair labor practices be swept away as a condition for approving the contract. It happens to be unlawful for a union to horse trade grievances, rather than settle them on their merits.

"We prefer to negotiate rather than litigate," Ryan said.

That's strange, in light of the suit the company just filed in federal court seeking to overturn the parking arbitration award. It's highly unusual to go to court to overturn binding arbitration in a labor contract.

As to the unfair labor practices charges by the Guild, these go the very heart of the bargaining tactics that the company has used since negotiations began.

It will be up to the National Labor Relations Board to decide these accusations - that the company has repeatedly broken federal labor laws - have merit.

Copyright © 2000 The Providence Newspaper Guild
TNG/CWA Local 31041
270 Westmister St., Providence, Rhode Island 02903
401-421-9466 | Fax: 401-421-9495