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GUILD LEADER

Vol XIl, Issue 38 TNG/CWA Local 31041 August 4, 2001

Contract sticking points

A LONG DISPUTE ABOUT PENSIONS

Retirement programs have been a key issue since negotiations began, and the issue remains a major unresolved item. Here's where things stand in negotiations:

GUILD

· Proposes allowing members the choice of the Belo Corp.'s original pension plan, or that of the current Providence Journal Co. plan - whichever pays more in individual cases.
· Wants terms of the new Belo 401k retirement savings plan inserted into the current Providence Journal Co. 401k plan.

COMPANY

Refuses to discuss pensions during the current contract talks. Instead, it has proposed a "re-opener" after a new overall contract is agreed to, with those talks to begin in late 2001. Belo stopped offering its pension and 401k retirement savings plan to newly-hired workers, substituting a new 401k for both.


KEY ISSUES

· Belo plans offered other workers: In general, Belo's pension and 401k savings plans are more generous than those of the Journal Co. The company refuses to offer them to the Guild, as it has for other Journal employees.

· Plan change. Last July, Belo changed its pension program. It closed the Belo pension plan to new employees, replacing that with a revised 401k program, which becomes the only retirement program available. The Guild maintains that its members should still be given a chance of switching into the old Belo pension program.

· Is new better? If the choice turns out to be limited to either staying with current benefits - a combination of Journal pension and Journal 401k - or switching to the new Belo 401k plan only, it appears workers are better off in the current plans.

· Company misinformation. Journal managers have tried to obscure the pension debate by saying that the Guild turned down the Belo benefits in 1997. That is not true. Those benefits were never offered the Guild, only a contract re-opener was offered, just as is the case now.

WHY THIS MATTERS: According to Guild analysis, Belo retirement plans appear to be better, overall, than those of the Journal Co.

But the comparison is difficult to make because the company has refused to give the Guild information that would answer the questions. This refusal to provide data is part of the union's federal unfair labor practices case against the company.

The Belo plans have been given to non-union workers, and members of the other two unions at the paper. The Guild believes its members deserve the same choices.

THE BASICS

First, the pension plans come in two types, with Guild members currently getting both: Pensions, a company-paid benefit guaranteed by the federal government that provides fixed monthly payments at retirement; and 401k retirement savings plan. In 401k's, the company makes some contributions and employees are encouraged to make some and get tax breaks when they do. When employees put in their own money, the company contributes "matching" funds above the basic contribution. The government does not guarantee the solvency of these plans. Withdrawals allowed after age 59½.

ROUND I: THE OLD BELO BENEFITS

The Belo pension plan is generally - not always - more generous than the Journal pension plan.

Among the differences:

The Belo pension has better benefits if someone retires before age 65. Under Belo, you don't have to be with the company as long as you do with the Journal to begin collecting at age 55. And if you leave the company before retirement, the Belo plan doesn't reduce the eventual payments you will receive at age 65 the way that the Journal plan does.

The Belo plan bases its pension on more earnings than does the Journal plan, which calculates the benefit on base pay. Belo adds in overtime pay, shift differentials, bonuses and commissions. That can add 3 to 7 percent more to pension benefits.

But that this isn't the case in all circumstances. That's why the Journal, when it offered Belo pensions to its other workers, allowed them to be paid the higher of the two benefits.

401k retirement savings: The Guild-Journal 401k version works this way: The company puts $2.10 into the plan for every shift worked, to a maximum of $10.50 a week. If a worker contributes a minimum of 2 percent of his or her own money, the company kicks in an extra $3 a week, for a maximum weekly benefit of $13.50. If workers can afford to, it makes sense to invest their own money, because they get significant tax breaks.

The original Belo 401k put no company money into the plan unless workers made their own contributions. But when they did, Belo matched employee contributions at a rate of 55 percent, contributing the amount in Belo Corp. stock. This match would be made on up to 6 percent of a worker's pay.

The Guild's quick analysis: for low-income workers, the Guild-Journal plan was better, because the company always contributed. For higher earning workers, the Belo plan seemed richer, although there was the danger that if Belo stock performed poorly, the benefit would lose value, as it has.

Negotiations: For a new contract, the Guild made one of its major negotiating proposals that the company offer workers a choice of Belo or Journal benefits.

But the company refused to discuss pensions, until it made what it has called its "final" offer, in which it proposed that separate negotiations be held on retirement plans after the main contract was negotiated.

What's wrong with a re-opener? First, every big-ticket item in a contract relates to every other one. You might accept a lower wage if you got better medical benefits; you might argue for higher pay if pensions remained miserly. Fringe benefits can't be negotiated effectively in a vacuum.

More seriously, in a reopener, the company doesn't have to offer the Belo benefit package; it could propose something else, even less favorable than the current Journal benefits. If the Guild refused to accept the lower benefits, the company could impose its offer and the Guild's only recourse would be to strike.

ROUND II - THE "NEW" BELO BENEFITS

The situation got more complicated March 17, 2000, when the company during negotiations disclosed that it was going to offer non-Guild workers a new pension plan: one based entirely on a 401k savings plan.

For newly-hired non-Guild workers as of July 2000, it would provide this new plan only. Current workers would have a one-time decision to stick with the combination of the old Belo 401k and the Belo pension plan; or they could switch to the new 401k, with pension benefits frozen at their current levels.

The company did NOT offer this new plan to the Guild.

The new Belo STAR program, as it's called, is a much richer 401k. First, the company contributes 2 percent of a worker's salary, regardless of how much you contribute to the plan.

Secondly, the company boosted its match for workers contributing up to 6 percent of wages; instead of 55 cents for every $1 contributed by the worker, Belo kicks in 75 cents. Of this match, 55 cents would be in Belo stock; the extra 20 cents would be invested in other securities.

But wiped out, for new workers, or frozen for older workers shifting over to STAR, would be the old Belo pension plan.

The Guild had several questions, including trying to determine whether the new STAR plan is worth more in the long run than the combined pension/401k combination.

But so far, the company refuses to provide information so the Guild can tell members which of the plans are more beneficial. The National Labor Relations Board has charged the company with breaking in the law in withholding the data.


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