Advance Publications’ likely true target at Cleveland Plain Dealer: the union?

NewspaperGuildLOGOYesterday’s tentative agreement between Times-Picayune sister paper the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Local 1 of the Newspaper Guild, which represents the paper’s 168 newsroom employees, didn’t make immediate sense to a non-member observer.

The guild would accept a workforce reduction of 58 in exchange for a guarantee of no further large-scale layoffs through 2019. Without the agreement, The Plain Dealer would purge 80 to 85 employees. Although devastating for anyone who would lose his or her job, the deal, on its face, looked grudgingly good for a union that didn’t seem to have much bargaining power against a national company clearly intent on making the newspaper the next cog in its “digital first” wheel.

Advance’s Real Motivation: Weakening – or Obliterating – the Union?

But in a blog post this morning, Cleveland Magazine‘s Senior Editor Erick Trickey details PD owner Advance Publications’ likely true motivation in the proposed agreement: weakening, if not destroying, the union.

As part of the agreement, “non-union journalists will be able to write for the Plain Dealer, while Plain Dealer reporters’ work will still go online,” Trickey writes. “It’s a major concession by the newspaper guild, and it’ll weaken the union over time, since new hires will likely be on the online side.”

In other words – and in a departure to what’s been done in the seven other markets that already have gone or are now going through Advance’s “digital-first” change – the company will not “merge the Plain Dealer and into a single “media group,” but instead “will run parallel news operations: a shrinking unionized newsroom and a new, non-union digital news staff,” Trickey reports.

“A big part of that is we’ve given them some language that could, over the years, really diminish our numbers,” guild chairman Harlan Spector told Julie Moos of “It gives them the ability to put cheap content in the paper.”

The Guild’s Gain: Security and Benefits for Members Who Dodge the Layoff

In exchange, the new contract would allow the guild to protect eplain-dealer-exteriorxisting members: the company would restore the 8% wage cut the journalists took to avoid layoffs in 2009 and add money to the guild’s underfunded pension and health care funds, Trickey reports. The newsroom would be reduced from 168 to 110 after May 1, 2013, and then for the next six years, only five more employees would lose their jobs, with those cuts coming in 2014.

“After the massacre of 2013, we wanted a guarantee for people,” Spector told Trickey.

Advance Long Acknowledged as Anti-Union

The move definitely reflects a long-acknowledged and vociferous anti-union philosophy at Advance. Former Times-Picayune publisher Ashton Phelps, Jr., was known to publicly declare to employees, “We don’t like unions here,” and a primary motivation behind Advance’s once-remarkable and now-discarded job guarantee pledge was assumed to be to keep unions at bay.

The vote by the full union membership at The Plain Dealer will be Tuesday. If the proposed agreement is rejected, in addition to the 80-to-85 job cuts, the company also likely will seek to deduct health care and pension fund contributions out of the employees’ wages rather than the company continuing to cover those costs, which reportedly would cost each employee about $200 a month.

“It’s not much of a choice: a bad option and a worse option,” PD Road Rant columnist John Horton told Trickey. “You see what we have – it’s being dismantled. You’re losing something. You won’t realize it until it’s gone.”

The loss will go beyond Cleveland because the “1” in “Local 1,” after all, represents the first. Chartered on March 20, 1934, it was “the birthplace of the [Newspaper] Guild,”  its website notes.

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