Vol XI, No. 32TNG/CWA Local 31041March 29, 2000

Slanted ProJo Coverage Continues in Guild dispute

The Providence Journal yesterday continued its pattern of biased coverage of its labor dispute with the Guild.

The newspaper, which has virtually spurned straight news coverage of the negotiations, published a personal opinion column Tuesday that criticized union's move to block a health care panel discussion sponsored by the newspaper.

M. Charles Bakst, who is the newspaper's political columnist and not a member of the Guild, chastised the union for asking political leaders not participate in a forum the newspaper had put on last week with Brown University.

Bakst focused mainly on a similar protest by a Cranston police union that had scuttled a Congressional candidates' debate the day before. But he devoted three paragraphs to the Guild's action.

That was two more paragraphs than the newspaper had run about the Guild matter in its supposedly "hard-news" story on Saturday about the health care conference.

Since the labor negotiations began last October, the Journal has published one three-paragraph story about a union rally; the one paragraph last Saturday; and now the three paragraphs in Bakst's column.

Meanwhile, The Providence Phoenix has devoted several stories to the dispute, including an in-depth cover article, and there have been accounts on TV, radio and in several newspapers and a national journalism magazine.

The Guild believes that the newspaper has set aside normal standards of journalism to withhold information from the public.

By ignoring the story - one of the most dangerous forms of censorship - the Journal is denying the union an important outlet to discuss its serious charge that the newspaper is out to wreck the Guild.

Ironically, Bakst's column included more information about the dispute than have the other "articles," saying that one of the key issues in the half-year disagreement is health coverage.

And Bakst noted for the first time that the panelists who had honored Guild picket lines were state officials. Last Saturday's "article" did not even mention the importance of the panelists whose session was called off.

However, it is hardly fair journalism to let columnists have the only substantive word about a major story.

While Bakst is too respectable a columnist to be a management mouthpiece, it is hard to avoid the fact that among the scant information the paper has published is an attack on the union.

This follows a pattern in which the newspaper has been avoiding coverage of its business affairs, including its failure to report the circulation crisis that earlier crippled the paper.

In an effort to use the newspaper as a weapon it is campaign against the union, the Journal is risking the paper's very integrity and credibility - and that of the men and women who work for it.

"It's just the same kind of union-busting tactic" that has marked the entire negotiations, said Bob Jagolinzer, union president and a Journal reporter.

"The newspaper just doesn't want the story to get out."

An Analysis

A new Belo pension plan means the Guild would have been out of luck had it accepted the company's last offer.

There is still much to be learned about the company's new pension plan that was disclosed to the Guild at the last negotiating session, March 17.

But this much already seems clear:

The Belo Corp. was cooking up this brand new pension program - but keeping it secret from the Guild - even as negotiations were proceeding.

It was keeping the new program a secret even while Journal officials were trying to persuade union members to vote for a contract that did not contain that new plan.

In fact, if the company's last offer had been accepted by the Guild Feb. 2 & 3, the union probably wouldn't have gotten to discuss the new pension plan for two years.

That's because the company's last offer contained a pension and 401k re-opener that would have delayed negotiations on pensions until November, 2001.

What the Guild learned during St. Patrick's Day talks is that the company is rolling out the new plan for non-Guild workers, to take effect in July.

One can imagine what would have happened if the Guild had accepted the company's February offer, then asked for the new plan pension plan. The company could have said:

`Hey, folks: wait for your re-opener. That's what you just voted for.'

In other words, while the company was earnestly trying to persuade the union to accept its last contract offer, it seems to have been laying a trap.

Which makes the union's move in rejecting the contract - a record 354 to 28 - all the more far-sighted. Now, our options are still open.

But what is most disturbing is that subterfuge, rather than fair and open dealing, seems to have been the company's strategy.

Here's what happened:

When negotiations began last October, one of the Guild's major demands was that the current Belo benefits - the Belo pension and the Belo 401k - be opened to the Guild , as they had been other company workers.

The company steadfastly refused to negotiate the issue.

In his March 7 letter to employees, Mark T. Ryan, a senior vice president, said the company had not "realized" that these benefits were important to the Guild until negotiations began.

"In a sincere effort to reach agreement," Ryan explained, the company went "the extra mile" and offered the pension and retirement benefits re-opener.

But a re-opener is only that. It is not a specific list of benefits to take effect on a delayed basis. It's only a chance for the company and the union to discuss the subject. It had no guarantees that any real changes would be made. But Ryan made it sound like the company was doing the Guild a big favor with that re-opener.

Now fast-forward to the last negotiating session. Through the mediator, the company told the Guild that the Belo Corporation has come up with a brand new pension plan.

This new plan is such a radical departure from the current Belo retirement benefits that it is inconceivable that it was developed since the rejection vote. You don't just redo a pension plan overnight.

Somebody had to dream up the name: the STAR Plan (Saving Together to Accumulate Resources). Somebody had to calculate what the company would have to spend, and what the company might save, and how it would transition workers from the old plan to the new one. Somebody, somewhere in the corporation knew what was up. Somebody knew that one of the key issues to the Guild - that the union be placed on an equal footing on benefits with non-Guild employees - was going to change dramatically.

And somebody knew the pension changes would come after the Guild presumably voted to lock itself into a contract with retirement talks two years away.

Much remains to be learned.

For one thing, the company has not yet offered the Guild the new Belo pension program.

The Guild has not had time yet to weigh the plusses and minuses of the new plan. It has asked for detailed information about the plan and is awaiting word from the mediator about a new bargaining session.

But what does seem obvious is that the company was not playing straight with the union these past six months.

Not during the negotiations.

Not when it asked union members to vote for its contract.

It's a valuable - if discouraging - warning of how carefully the Guild must proceed with this company, even if it is a company that publishes what is supposed to be a believable newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 The Providence Newspaper Guild
TNG/CWA Local 31041
270 Westmister St., Providence, Rhode Island 02903
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