Dodges Guild Members
Guild members Marion Davis and Kerry Kohring yesterday went to the Belo Corp. annual stockholders meeting to ask Robert Decherd, chairman and chief executive officer, to meet personally with Journal employees to help end the labor dispute.
"Employees are the greatest asset," Davis told Decherd. "We want to do the best job possible. We are not treated as valuable assets. You treat us like the enemy."
"Are you willing to question the stance of the managers in Providence?" Davis asked. She urged Decherd to "come talk to us at our desks and see how we feel."
Decherd did not address the requests for his intervention, but reaffirmed his support for publisher Howard Sutton and vice presidents Mark Ryan and Bob Shadrick.
Indeed Shadrick, who spearheaded the company's successful effort to quash a Guild organizing campaign in the circulation department, was awarded Belo's Seay Award and praised for his "loyalty" and his success in "building solid, fair and stable labor agreements with the Pressmen and the Teamsters."
In his responses to Davis and Kohring, Decherd repeatedly pointed to the Pressmen's and Teamsters contracts as evidence that the company was not out to bust the union. (He didn't mention that the terms of those contracts piggyback on what the company gives non-union workers, and that the company's latest offer would then tie the Guild's contract terms to those of the Pressmen's and Teamsters -- essentially giving the company complete discretion to change benefits, pay and working conditions, just as if there were no union.)
Davis, an education writer, and Kohring, a night copy editor, spoke informally with Sutton, Ryan and Executive Editor Joel Rawson before the meeting. But when Davis attempted to approach Decherd afterward, she was physically blocked from doing so by a Belo vice president, who said Decherd did not like being quoted in the Guild Leader last year when Kohring and Brian Jones spoke with him at the stockholders meeting.
Kohring and Davis were among five people who took advantage of the public comment period during the stockholders meeting, held yesterday morning at the Dallas Museum of Art and attended by about 350 people.
Kohring, who personally owns shares of Belo stock, focused on the 56 National Labor Relations Board charges against the Journal, saying the legal costs and liability from those charges threatened the company's financial health.
"The Belo Corporation today is facing federal punitive actions as a result of current Journal management's illegal refusal to negotiate in good faith with its workers," Kohring said. "Yet the annual reports says that litigation the Belo Corporation is engaged in `would not have a material adverse effect' on its financial position.
"Mr. Chairman, how can this be?"
Kohring said that thousands of union members in Rhode Island have already pledged to cancel their subscriptions if called upon to do so by the Guild. "We do not wish to do so, but we will be forced to if the current management continues to refuse to bargain in good faith," Kohring said. "The subsequent plunge in circulation would be a serious blow to the income of the Providence Journal Company and to the Belo Corporation."
Kohring then invited Decherd to "join us in a businesslike discussion of the issues that threaten our company's well-being. Will you meet with us?"
Davis said that throughout Kohring's speech, "Decherd was clearly uncomfortable, shifting back and forth, grimacing and running his tongue across his lips. At no other point did I see this discomfort in Decherd."
Decherd then told Kohring: "First and foremost, I have a great deal of confidence in Howard Sutton, Mark Ryan, Bob Shadrick and other members of our management team," and said that they "are building on a very strong tradition of leadership."
He dismissed the NLRB charges as "unfounded" and said Belo expects to prevail. He said there are so many charges only because the Guild contract has expired and there is no recourse to arbitration.
Decherd also said Belo expects the Journal's circulation to grow, and added, "It is unfortunate that our own employees are soliciting citizens to cancel their subscriptions."
Decherd told the stockholders that the Guild and the Journal have had 19 bargaining sessions, including 9 with a federal mediator, and that an offer was recently put on the table, which the Guild didn't put to a vote.
"We are going to stick with our values, our operating principles," Decherd said.
Guild member Davis then spoke. She explained that the last contract offer was a reduced version of one that had already been rejected by the membership, that "it would have us renounce our right to bargain," and it was not a good-faith offer.
Referring to comments by Decherd about the importance of employees, Davis said, "You treat us like you don't value us."
She then invited Decherd and other stockholders to meet with Guild members and learn what is really going on.
Decherd replied that Belo management has never said anything that "would call into question" the professionalism of Guild members. "It is an extraordinarily professional group of men and women,'' he said. "We deeply appreciate what you and your colleagues do."
But he also reiterated that "I have a great deal of confidence" that Howard Sutton and the local managers are putting on their "very best effort" to reach a contract.
Before the meeting, Davis encountered Sutton, who extended his hand and greeted her by name, although they had never before met. Davis told Sutton what she intended to say at the meeting, and pointed out that the Guild and the company share a common goal of wanting to produce a high-quality newspaper.
"We want a contract," Sutton told Davis, asserting that management harbors "no animosity" toward union members.
Sutton also said the Journal is having "a great year," and that he had just found out that Providence/New Bedford is the No. 1 newspaper market in the United States in terms of the concentration of newspaper readers. Sixty-five percent of adults here read a paper, he said, and about 80 percent of them read the Journal. He called the contract dispute "a distraction," and said, "We need to get it done."
During the meeting, Decherd read from the annual report, reporting that 2001 was "a challenging year for our country and for our company," but "our management teams delivered their best performance in my tenure." Faced with the economic downturn, they "acted boldly and selflessly" to guide the company through the tough times, he said.
On a screen, Decherd showcased the work of some Dallas Morning News photographers and reporters who went to Afghanistan, and also the Journal's "landmark series" on lead poisoning done by Peter Lord and John Freidah.
"This series has changed government policy in Providence and throughout the state of Rhode Island," he said. Decherd said that people all over the country have requested reprints of the lead series. (He did not mention that Sutton refused to pay the approximately $1,400 cost of printing 5,000 copies, forcing Lord to seek foundation funding for the reprints.)
Then Decherd talked about the future, and said Belo has positioned itself to be an "early beneficiary" of the expected economic recovery.
Decherd said Belo has five priorities for 2002:
And he noted that Dec. 9 marked Belo's 20th anniversary as a publicly held company. He said Belo's successes today were build through "the dedication and hard work of the generations of Belo employees who came before us."
After the meeting, Scott Baradell, a former reporter who is now Belo's vice president for corporate communications, approached Davis and said he had read the Guild's Web site, and "It looks like you guys are pretty upset."
Davis filled him in on the problems, and explained that contrary to Decherd's assertions, the federal charges are serious and stem from clear-cut violations of labor law. Then she saw Decherd and attempted to approach him. "Scott literally stood in my way," Davis said, "and said Decherd had said he didn't want to be approached by us at the meeting, that he had talked last year and it had been put on our Web site and he didn't like it, and that he didn't want to talk about our problems 'in this setting.'
"I asked him what other setting I could talk to him in," Davis said, "and he couldn't come up with one."
TNG/CWA Local 31041
270 Westmister St., Providence, Rhode Island 02903
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