Monday, December 22, 2008

Guild gets a seat at the table

The Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild was named last week to the creditors' committee in the Tribune bankruptcy filing. The committee also includes Merrill Lynch Capital Corp., JPMorgan Chase Bank, Deutsche Bank Trust, Warner Bros. Television, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. and Vertis.

The Guild's inclusion on the committee follows its success last week in securing Tribune's commitment to pay promised severance and health care benefits to Guild-represented employees who recently accepted a company buyout. Payments were cut off for Tribune employees who were not covered by union contracts. The payments were threatened by Tribune's filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“Our ability to get a seat on the committee ensures that the voice of Tribune Company's workers will get heard in the proceedings,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild-CWA.

Though it's not the table the union would prefer to be seated at, inclusion gives the Guild the opportunity to watch out for its members' best interests.


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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

As with a sale, union retains certain rights in a bankruptcy filing

The Guild at the Baltimore Sun responded quickly to yesterday's news with a bulletin letting its members know what the Chapter 11 filing means to them.

Also, according to this Chicago Tribune report, "The company has 180 days to come up with a plan the bankruptcy court accepts. Failing that, the court will consider competing plans from creditors and others."

Time to draw up competing plans. At all Trib papers. From the WBNG bulletin:

... the Guild has been working with local investors who are interested in buying The Sun, and it will continue to do so. Our goal is to get owners who are committed [to] serving the community, the readers and the advertisers with quality products and services.
From the archives: ESOP plan participation not automatic for union-covered employees

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Zell Hell. Realized.*

Today Tribune became the first major news organization to file bankruptcy. Since Zell made his bid to take over the company in early 2007, there was no shortage of expert opinion (summed up nicely here) that the complex plan under which he took the company private was risky and that employees would shoulder all the risk.

The guy who put up just $315 million of his own funds to engineer the $8 billion Tribune purchase a year ago this month in a deal that converted Tribune to "America's largest employee-owned company", now says filing Chapter 11 might ultimately save the company.

Though the company is nearly buried in $12.97 billion in debt, Zell carries little risk. Because employees own all the stock under the ESOP, they may get left holding empty stock(ing)s in the bankruptcy: the shareholders are the last to get paid out — behind Sam Zell.

"It has been, to say the least, the perfect storm," Zell said in a memo to employees. "A precipitous decline in revenue and a tough economy have coupled with a credit crisis, making it extremely difficult to support our debt. All of our major advertising categories have been dramatically impacted."

Also a year ago this month, Recovering Journalist wrote:

Just look at the tumult that accompanied Sam Zell's closing of his deal to buy Tribune Co. this week. The bankers were squeezing the deal right up to the last minute. Even Zell called it "the transaction from hell." And Zell's going to have to pedal—and peddle—as fast as he can to keep the company afloat financially. It's not just the Chicago Cubs that are going to be sold by Tribune. Look for a fire sale of real estate and newspapers (Los Angeles Times, anyone? Anyone?) as Zell strips the company for cash. And at this holiday time, say a prayer for the poor Tribune employees, who could be left holding the bag—through their retirement plan, which now owns the company through Zell's creative accounting—if things turn sour. Memo to Tribune employees: Get. The. Hell. Out.
Hundreds got out and left with relatively decent severance packages that are now in jeopardy. “All ongoing severance payments, deferred compensation and other payments to former employees have been discontinued and will be the subject of later proceedings before the court,” current employees were told in an internal Tribune memo.

Tribune Company may be saved under the Chapter 11. Current employees with less than one year in the ESOP may not suffer a big hit. It is former employees who may be impacted the most by the bankruptcy.
* Edited for clarification 12/09

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Big boss is watching you

Bad enough that times have gotten tougher at The Times with the seemingly endless rounds of staff cuts, senior management exits and a pending lawsuit, but today LA's media watchdog, LAObserved felt compelled to issue a warning to Times staffers: according to sources, their not-so-new publisher is calling it "treason" for employees to share information about stuff going on inside the paper.

LAO's Roderick writes that "current Times leadership is unhappy enough (or paranoid enough) about stuff getting out to consider action against staffers" and advises staffers to "take precautions — use your personal email, our PO box, or pick up the phone — and don't presume they aren't watching."

For sure. As employees-at-will without benefit of just cause protection, use your best judgement.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Cuts run deeper at LAT

Seventy-five more editorial positions are being eliminated at the LA Times. Kevin Roderick at LAObserved reports "Newsroom staffers are being told today individually and in department meetings that as many as 75 editorial positions are being cut through voluntary departures and layoffs. Some staffers were approached last week about volunteering, "enticed" with the threat that this will be the absolute final time that editorial employees will receive two weeks severance pay for each year of service when they leave."

How many parts can be surgically removed before the patient dies?

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Times columnist on the lawsuit

Times columnist Dan Neil and Phillip Gregory, one of the attorneys representing the employees' lawsuit, was interviewed Friday on KPFK's "Deadline L.A." Listen to it here.

"We want Zell and the Board removed," said Neil. "We want an independent accounting of the company's finances, especially with regard to the pension and we want a say in the future direction of the paper." The lawsuit also seeks return of employee assets.

Asked why he signed on as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Neil said he isn't worried about his own situation, that he and his family will be okay. "What's the worse he [Zell] can do, fire me?" Neil became "more and more infuriated" with what he saw as "the rampant mismanagement by the company."

Lawsuits can take years before a judgement is made. Gregory said that to move the case along quickly, the suit was filled in federal court where it would go before a single judge who could then move to "get the class certified so that the parties suing can effectively represent all employees who belong to the class that the suit is filed on behalf of."

Neil said people are "very encouraged by the suit, if for no practical or legal reason, they just like the idea that somebody is finally pushing back against Zell."

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Zell blasts partners; employees’ law firm responds

Sam Zell thinks the lawsuit is frivolous and unnecessary: "We are partners and we need to act like it" he wrote in an email to employees yesterday. Zell admonishes Tribune employees, saying that he and they are "all in this together."

The suit may be more than a shot across his bow. The law firm representing (former and current) LAT staffers wrote (Romenesko Memos):

The current and former Tribune employees are not "all in this together" with Sam Zell. The rank and file employees have their jobs and their current and future retirement plans tied up by the machinations of Zell and his co-fiduciaries. ... [snip]

Zell's comments fail to acknowledge the billions of dollars in debt he caused the Tribune Company to incur, necessitating both the layoffs and the diminishing content of the Company's newspapers. It is unfortunate that, in typical fashion, Sam Zell is ignoring the rights and neglecting the best interests of the hard-working Tribune employees, whom he cynically refers to as "partners." Rather than working with his "partners," he is tearing the company down, brick by brick, and selling it off, in an effort to pay down the massive debt he improperly encumbered the company with. We look forward to cutting through Zell's self-serving, out of touch rhetoric and fighting for our clients -- the Tribune’s real and rightful owners -- in court.
There is nothing frivolous about the mounting employee fear and concern that Zell's house of cards will fall, leaving them all jobless and broke. So rather than stand by and do nothing, the employees are taking action. Given the legal structure of ESOPs, this lawsuit should generate tremendous interest as it winds its way through the courts. The message of the filing is clear: Tribune (current and former) employees have determined they need to use whatever tools they can to fight for their product, their journalism and their livelihood. This lawsuit is one tool available to them and we hope the courts move this one along in a speedy manner.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Employees in LA file class action lawsuit against Zell, Tribune *

From LAObserved : "... lawyers representing current and former Los Angeles Times newsroom staffers are filing a class-action federal lawsuit against Sam Zell and Tribune this morning in Los Angeles, alleging breaches of fiduciary duty, conflicts of interest and other violations of ERISA, the law that safeguards the proper handling of retirement benefits like pensions and trusts."

Interesting timing, given the current crisis in our financial systems. And how will this economic wreck effect Tribune's bank loans and, more importantly, the ESOP?

* WSJ: Six current and former Times employees, including Pulitzer Prize-winning auto critic Dan Neil, former wine and food critic Corie Brown, and former legal affairs writer Henry Weinstein, filed the lawsuit. Document here.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Don’t just sit there ...

Do something! Head out to Los Angeles to sign the petition on TellZell. Then maybe start your own: get your readers to support you and your newspaper.

It's your company, and TellZell reasons that if you want a seat at the table you need to do something. Furthermore, you should take action (even if its simply signing a petition) because its "important to our readers, to community leaders, to everybody who cares about [your area], and democracy and great news and the comics and movie reviews and -- well, everything in the paper."

The business is in dire straits. We all understand that. But you also know that the consolidation and homogenization of news-gathering even during these difficult times isn't working. So if Tribune isn't listening to your creative and innovative solutions, why not at least try for a seat at the table where the decisions are made that effect your financial interests?

So maybe you don't want to get a union going in your newsroom – though we think you should form a guild – you can sign a petition. Okay, you may feel safer doing it anonymously, but share the link with your family, friends, neighbors, community organizations – and hey, don't forget the advertisers. They have a vested interest in the newspaper's survival, too.

And yes, as TellZell warns, a petition may be ignored. But what's to lose? If Tribune ignores tens (hundreds?) of thousands of employees and readers demanding representation at the ESOP table, well then ...

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Guild prez on Zell, the industry and union strategies

Tribune declined an invitation to appear on today's Democracy Now! for a round-table discussion on the state of the industry. The program was hosted by Juan Gonzales, columnist at the New York Daily News and co-host of Democracy Now! with guests Newspaper Guild-CWA president Bernard Lunzer (pictured at left), Chris Hedges, author and former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and Linda Jue, past president of the SPJ-Northern California Chapter.

Tribune's Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations Gary Weitman wrote in a statement:

"We have gotten a great deal of attention for the actions we've taken at our newspapers to address the issues we and our peers face ... At the end of the day, we had the largest news-gathering staffs in our markets and the second and third largest in the country — in Chicago and Los Angeles. That is true even after implementing the staff reductions..."
Asked to respond, Lunzer said:
"We've watched very closely at what's been happening at the [Guild-represented] Baltimore Sun and the loss of all the international bureaus and that kind of coverage, but its important to note that what they're doing is having a great effect on local coverage as well.

The other day Sam Zell said he's not going to sell any more papers in 2008, but we think in some cases, it might be better if Zell were to consider selling more of the empire and breaking it off. We hope that local ownership would actually create more responsibility and more response back to the local market and back to the local community — they really are going to be the ones that are going to be the biggest losers in this. Less is less. And we need to say that out loud. Subscribers are not fools. They can see that these products have been diminished ... We hear that Tribune is going to save journalism through these cuts. That's not what we're seeing."
Gonzales asked Lunzer what strategies the Newspaper Guild is developing to try to confront "this new reality you're facing for your members":
"One we have been pursuing for some time is ESOP [employee stock ownership plan] strategies and we're hoping to have an announcement very soon where we might have finally been able to bring one of these to fruition...

We believe there is going to be a future for print, but we're not naive. We also understand there has to be innovation. We've been willing to bargain concessions where necessary, but we think the biggest mistake is that the owners and publishers have not been talking to the front-line workers about ... innovation. So what we're trying to do where we have to do concessions, we want to trade that for real involvement – real committees that are able to work on a business model, on the future of the product.

We still believe that there's a place for quality journalism and that people will want it... There's a lot of room for innovation, not just in news, but in advertising.
Lunzer also said The Newspaper Guild-CWA is fighting against the push for more media consolidation, and is working to help move through the House of Representatives a bill that would reverse the FCC's December 2007 cross-ownership rule change. "We think if there's more cross-ownership between broadcast and print there will be less innovation. I would tell you that most of the people we talk to in broadcast understand that broadcast is only five or six years behind print in terms of the effect that the Internet is having on the traditional delivery system."

Listen to the full discussion at Democracy Now!

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Raising (Zell) Hell in LA

The folks in LA are mad as hell and InkStainedRetch has words and pictures to prove it. Members of the newsroom staff have an anonymous agitator in Retch, who regularly pleads and prods staffers to fight back against the ill-fated business decisions that is destroying The Times. TellZell

"Here's what the Retch is proposing. We fight back with Paper Cuts. We protest, in ways big and small, in different places and different forums. We join unions. We post bumper stickers. We bake cakes. We file lawsuits. Everything we can, in as many ways as we can. Together."
Together is the only way the editorial staffers can take the steps to take back their Times. We believe that together, as a Guild union, they can not only negotiate fair employment terms and conditions, but actively participate in the future direction of their beloved newspaper.

Recently, journalists working for the MediaNews Group chain in Northern California voted to form a Guild. In a memo to her colleagues explaining her decision to join the Guild organizing campaign, Contra Costa Times reporter Sara Steffans wrote in part:
I believe our union will become a platform to promote the values we share as journalists, the ones that don’t always come to the forefront for profit-seeking owners. We need to be the voice for quality, for putting journalism first. We need to be the ones to point out that in the long run, good journalism is good business, be it online or in print.


We can sit around and mourn the demise of our industry. Or we can stand up and fight for our little corner of the world, for ourselves and our co-workers and the communities that depend on what we do.

Somebody has to stand up for what’s right.

Let’s stand together.
Full text of Sara's memo is here.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tribune cuts, we bleed

As part of their community outreach campaign, Guild members at the Baltimore Sun created a video ("Tribune Cuts, We Bleed") last week to protest Tribune's continued dismantlement of Baltimore's paper of record by slashing 100 jobs there. The rally and production and distribution of the resulting video is concerted activity protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

In his e-mail to staff announcing the worst newsroom cuts in years, Sun publisher Timothy A. Ryan wrote, "In August, 2008, The Sun redesign will debut giving readers more of what they want ..."

More of what they want? Sun staffers don't think readers will get what they want or more of it, so they're using their collective voice to tell the community what's really happening to their hometown newspaper. Video voices:

"The Guild has been here fighting this company day in and day out to try to prevent these kind of losses. But we have owners who don't care, owners who don't care about you and don't care about this community."

"As the world becomes more global, this paper is becoming more local. As America is beset with increasingly serious and complex problems, our distant corporate owners are turning us into a tabloid full of press releases ... we're desperate for paid subscribers but we're trying to bring them in by offering less. It's not going to work. It's wrong and I want no part of it."

" We've always been the news leader in Maryland ... we're right up there in the state house and we provide people with the news that they need about their elected officials, about what's going on in their communities and we just won't be able to do that job ... Seventy-five cents for a paper that's going to run bigger pictures to hide the fact that people who should be sitting in those seats won't be here to help grow the paper."

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

You asked

Maybe you're not ready to attend mass meetings or even one-on-one for a cup of coffee today, tomorrow or next week. But by the looks of the number of hits and page views to this blog, there's no doubt that many of you are looking for information; searching for answers to questions about the union. So we've put together a compilation of our most frequently asked questions about The Guild and the process to form a Guild in your workplace. Undoubtedly, there will be more questions. We're prepared to answer every one of them. And if we don't have an answer, we'll get it for you as soon as possible.

Q. Why a union and why at this time?
A. Because we can expect that more upheaval is coming. Because few individuals have leverage to negotiate better circumstances for themselves with Tribune. Because all Tribune employees want to see their newspapers remain quality papers and because its becoming clearer every day that the current chief owner does not care about either its civic duty or the Fourth Estate.

And — with a formal organization like The Newspaper Guild-CWA, employee concerns and ideas about the operation of the newsroom must be heard by management.

Q. Why the Guild?
A. Our changing industry has been undergoing tremendous cultural upheaval, which has translated to uncertainty and massive layoffs. When media companies make cost-cutting decisions — ostensibly designed to meet debt obligations (and/or improve profit margins) — reducing its workforce is among the first. The Guild is experienced in limiting the impact of cost-cutting layoffs at publications where it represents employees. At Guild locations, most planned layoffs were averted by offers to employees of incentives like enhanced severance packages, extra pension credits or extended health care coverage. The Guild in Baltimore had a seat at the table on the recent buyout offer there. It didn't prevent the layoffs, but it had a voice in how the layoffs were "selected".

Additionally, a media corporation with unorganized employees has 100% control of the workplace, often without the knowledge or experience to produce the best possible newspaper — one that educates and informs its readership community. When employees are unified, the paper will be more appealing to buyers with experience working with unions and are far more likely to see its employees as the assets they are, rather than liabilities to be stripped or discarded. MN employees launch worker-friendly idea

Q. What can the Guild do to prevent layoffs?
A. While it cannot guarantee jobs in the face of realignment, reorganization or restructure, the Guild forces the company to negotiate the terms and conditions for those impacted by layoff through buyout opportunities, enhanced severance packages and, in some cases, development of rehire lists. The Guild helps set guidelines and protections for the inevitable increased workload for the staff remaining. Without the Guild’s experience and expertise, most individuals lack the leverage to protect themselves from the impact of pending job loss.

Organized employees are more successful in trying to make sure the journalistic quality of their paper is maintained. At a time when owners have no vision for the future of journalism and are sacrificing tomorrow’s paper for today’s bottom dollar, newspaper staffers are fighting back.

Q. What is The Newspaper Guild–Communications Workers of America (TNG-CWA)?
A. Founded by newspaper reporter and columnist Heywood Broun and a small group of journalists seeking better wages and improved working conditions for the profession, TNG–CWA has continuously represented journalists and other media workers at such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to advance their economic interests, improve working conditions, and advance as far as it is able honesty in news, editorials, advertising and business practices. The Guild actively works to raise the standards of journalism and ethics in the industry. It is the industry’s leading advocate for First Amendment rights at work, rights protected under the National Labor Relations Act , Congress’ commitment to protect employee rights to assemble, speak and act as one. Additionally, The Guild particpates in, promotes and supports all the journalism minority caucuses and is a member of the International Federation of Journalists. The Guild's model contract is available on our Web site.

Q: What is the Guild’s role in our salary structure?
A. The Guild negotiates the floor for wages: the absolute minimum amounts required in Guild collective bargaining agreements based on the various experience levels. Actual salaries may be higher, based on contract provisions that allow for salary payments above the minimum levels. In other words, individuals may negotiate above the contractual top scale, usually termed “merit pay”. The Guild does not impose wage ceilings: it does not suppress salaries. Minimum salaries are negotiated to ensure wages are distributed fairly and equitably and will guarantee your individual right to seek and maintain an above-scale salary.

Q: What about dues? What will it cost?
A. Nothing, initially. TNG-CWA does not require dues to be paid until the first contract is voted and approved by the newly-organized members. The typical $3 initiation fee will not be charged to Tribune employees who become members prior to a first contract. Dues are 1.3846% of salary. For example, dues for a salary of $1500 per week would be $1080 annually (tax deductable) Dues are capped at about the first $104,000 per year in salary, according to the Guild Constitution. Most of the dues collected remain with the local for its operations.

Q: Who will run the organization?
A. You and your newly-organized coworkers. The Guild and CWA professional staff are available to train and support the members and play whatever role is desired to best represent the newsroom. In addition, the Guild and the CWA staff have extensive experience in dealing with ESOPS and sales and/or transfers in ownership in the news industry.

Q: What about costs associated with forming a union?
A. Certainly there is a cost factor involved. However, Guild and CWA members coast to coast are making an investment in you because our members understand the value to all if your newsroom is part of our union. Guild and CWA members offer experience and resources to help you decide if the Guild is the right union for you.

Q: How do we do it and how long will it take?
A. It depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is the level of commitment from a majority of the eligible employees. It should not be a decision that is made without investigation. With all the uncertainty that is Tribune, added to people’s work schedules and home schedules, its difficult to make a timeline. But the goal should be for every person to examine the current circumstances and decide if this is the right time for a union. If a majority supports representation by the Guild, the sooner you have an organization in place the better. Then, the members could assess and decide its role in the difficult world of Tribune – before more significant changes are made without input from you.

Q: What happens next?
A. That is up to you. Exercise your First Amendment rights at work and organize now. The Guild is prepared to do whatever it takes to help you make an informed decision and get a Guild in place now.

Is Tribune taking action that is in your best interest or the best interests of your paper and the communities it serves? Why shouldn't you act in your own best interest and that of the paper you love? Take back some of that 100% control current Tribune leadership holds. After all, you own the company too.

Email us with your questions, comments or concerns and put us on your schedule.

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Meet me in LA again soon

A fair number of LAT staffers met with us at The Redwood last night to learn more about how they would form a Guild at The Times and what to do next. Not surprisingly, many of the questions reflected great concern about the direction the paper is headed and what it is they can do about it now – and in the coming weeks and months once these layoffs are behind them.

Thanks to all who stopped by and for those of you who wanted to but couldn't, you'll have other opportunities to attend Guild meetings – large and small – in the days to come. We'll be in touch.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Meet me in LA

At your request, we've scheduled an informational meeting in LA for interested Times employees tomorrow, Tuesday, July 22 at 6:30 p.m. at The Redwood Bar & Grill, 316 W. 2nd Street, just a short walk from The Times. We have reserved Redwood's private room and we'll be available to talk with you and answer your questions through 9 p.m. See you then!

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