Vol XI, No. 31TNG/CWA Local 31041March 27, 2000

State officials honor Guild pickets at Brown University;
Journal-sponsored health panel cancelled

A panel discussion about health care, sponsored by The Providence Journal, was cancelled last Friday after government officials said they wouldn't cross Providence Newspaper Guild picket lines.

The aborted discussion panel was to have included Lt. Gov. Charles J. Fogarty, Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse, House Majority Leader Gerard M. Martineau, state Sen. Thomas Izzo and Christine D. Ferguson, director of the Department of Human Services.

The Guild, along with the state AFL-CIO, had notified the four elected officials ahead of time about its intent to have demonstrators at the university to protest the newspaper's tactics in bargaining for a new Guild contract.

The union contended that the panel discussion, sponsored by the Journal and Brown University, presented a special problem.

Union officials noted that the paper was purporting to show concern about the state's health insurance crisis, even while the newspaper itself has imposed inferior and costly health plans on its own workers.

The panel discussion was planned as the capstone to a day-long program about health care issues. The rest of the forum went on as planned.

George H. Nee, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, praised the four elected state officials, who had been notified of the Guild's plans for a protest and who had told him that they wouldn't cross a Guild picket line.

Nee said that it took courage for them to side with the union, against the newspaper's management.

What Nee meant was that Journal management wields great power, especially when it comes to the paper's ability to write editorials about the officials' policies and their election bids.

The Brown University picketing was undertaken by teams of Guild members, about 15 in all. The protesters gathered at entrances to the university Green.

It was part of a series of protests designed to inform the public of what the Guild believes are the company's illegal tactics in negotiations that appear designed to wreck the union.

The cancellation of the Brown forum was the most dramatic effect of the Guild's campaign, marking the first time public officials turned away from an event sponsored by the paper.

(U.S. Sen. Jack Reed offered to do the same thing when he saw Guild leaflets being handed out at the annual public affairs conference, which also was sponsored by Brown and the Journal).

Last week's tactic spurred discussion even within the Guild.

Bob Kerr, one of the paper's leading columnist and a staunch union member, told Guild officials that he was disturbed by the image of the Guild, which stands for free speech, trying to cause the cancellation of a public forum.

But other union members welcomed the effort and its success.

John Hill, manager of the Journal's Blackstone Valley news bureau and a member of the Guild executive board, said that the union's intent was to seek the public's support in confronting the company's unprincipled conduct.

Hill pointed out that it was hypocritical of the Journal to be promoting solutions to the health insurance crisis, even while it was creating a healthcare crisis for its own workers.

In sponsoring forums such as the health care session, Hill said, the Journal seeks to polish its public image by claiming that it is trying to help solve important issues.

But meanwhile, in the conduct of its own business, the company is using unprincipled methods to hurt its own workers.

At the beginning of the year, the Journal unilaterally ended the existing health insurance plans that had been provided in the Guild's expired contract.

The union believes those plan should have been continued until the parties reached agreement on a new contract.

Instead, the company imposed a new menu of plans, which not only cost more in worker premium contributions and user fees, but are less flexible for patients.

Importantly, the company refused to extend Blue Cross coverage, a plan that more than 50 Guild members depended on.

The Guild has estimated that the increase in premiums for the most widely-used new family health plan, the United HMO, cost an extra $226 a year.

Further, co-pays for doctors' visits, drugs and other services, are likely to add an equal cost, eating deeply into the 3 percent raise offered by the company (but not so far included in Guild paychecks).

The company's refusal to offer Blue Cross has come in the face of tearful and emotional testimony by Guild members at the negotiating table about how important Blue Cross to themselves and their families.

The union, in arranging its protest at Brown, tried to avoid job and union conflicts.

Contacts with public officials were made by Tim Schick, the Guild administrator and by the AFL-CIO, not by Guild members, some of whom are reporters who cover the officials involved.

Felice J. Freyer, an executive board member and the newspaper's medical writer, was assigned to cover the forum and therefore did not participate in the demonstrations.

'The Whole Song'

A half dozen Guild members yesterday handed leaflets to hundreds attending an event at Veterans Auditorium by the Rhode Island Music Educators Association, which planned to thank The Providence Journal for its support.

Headlined "Make Sure You Hear The Whole Song," the leaflets congratulated the music organization for its work, and applauded the Journal's sponsorship.

But the leaflets spelled out the company's harsh bargaining tactics, and noted that its "outward beneficence" masks a less-than-savory attitude to its workers.

Paper Downplays Story; Continues Unfair Coverage

Spurning ethical journalism, the Providence Journal last week grossly underreported a story about the cancellation of a health care panel-discussion, which was co-sponsored by the newspaper and would have featured five state officials.

The panel was called off last Friday when the elected officials said they would not cross a Providence Newspaper Guild picket line set up to protest the newspaper's negotiating tactics.

But the next day's Journal relegated the Guild protest to one paragraph at the end of a story about other aspects of a day-long health forum sponsored by the Journal and Brown University.

That one paragraph did not even name the state leaders who were involved, nor explain the reasons for the union's protest.

And the "coverage" was in sharp contrast to the front page treatment the day before about a similar protest by a Cranston police union, which had halted a debate by four Congressional candidates.

The company's handling of the Guild story continues a pattern of its use of the newspaper to protect its business interests, rather than as a vehicle for honest reporting.

Although local and national media have covered the half-year labor dispute at the Journal, the newspaper itself has run only one other story about it. And that was a three-paragraph item that was heavily edited, then buried inside the business section.

Also, the Journal has never written about the crippling circulation problems it encountered earlier this year. The Wall Street Journal reported on that crisis.

The latest incident revolved around a March 24 forum co-sponsored by Brown and the Journal about Rhode Island's health care crisis, featuring national and local experts.

Felice J. Freyer, the paper's medical writer, and a Guild leader, had been assigned to cover the story.

But a day earlier, she told Peter Phipps, deputy managing editor, that she knew there would be a protest, and she did not want to cover it because of her Guild role.

Phipps assured her that a separate story would be written about that aspect of the forum, and asked her to cover the health policy issues only.

When Freyer returned from the morning session of the conference, during which the cancellation had been announced, she asked Phipps about coverage of the union issue.

Phipps, who himself was at the conference, told her that it was now his plan to add a paragraph to the end of her story.

He said that a Brown official was upset about the disruption of the panel and might issue a statement. Phipps told Freyer he would handle the reporting and writing about that.

Freyer commented that news reporting and writing are tasks reserved for the Guild bargaining unit, not non-union editors. Phipps, who writes a weekly opinion column, retorted: "Well, then grieve it."

The cancellation of the government officials' panel was newsworthy on several fronts.

One reason was that the officials might have had something newsworthy to say about health care in Rhode Island, which has been a major controversy for two years.

Further, the union's tactic in urging government officials to steer clear of its protest was controversial even among some Guild members, who considered it a possible curb on free-flowing discussion.

Most importantly, the action followed a similar type of protest just a day earlier by the Cranston police union, and which appropriately was covered on page one as the leading local story of the day.

That Cranston story, headlined "police picket line thwarts debate for congressional seat," was detailed and featured pictures and comments from all of the candidates affected.

But the story about the scrubbing of the Brown-Journal panel the next day was run on Page 3, with no mention of the most newsworthy aspect of the story in the headline, and just one paragraph about it at the end.

The censorship pattern is disturbing on many fronts.

It means that the newspaper's editors and owners lack the ethical backbone to adhere to the old journalism guidepost: to present the news "without fear or favor."

Instead, management is allowing the paper's business interests to cloud its coverage.

One possible motive for the Journal's lack of coverage of the labor dispute is that by ignoring the Guild contract dispute, the company hopes to prevent the union from telling the public about its side of the story.

But what it really does is compromise the paper's overall integrity, demonstrating to the public that the Journal will doctor the news when it suits its purpose, especially when its finances are an issue.

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