Chronicle to cut 13% of Guild jobs

In weak bargaining position, union accepts reductions but wants to protect senior employees from layoffs

By Michael Stoll
Posted July 19, 2005
Updated July 20, 2005

The lines are drawn (literally) at the Chronicle, where management is preparing its headquarters to hunker down for a strike if labor talks fail.

Whether or not ongoing labor negotiations lead to a strike at the San Francisco Chronicle, both sides agree that it will soon be a smaller paper.

That's because the company intends to shed 13 percent of its roughly 900 employees represented by the Northern California Media Workers Guild, which has no say in the matter, a union official said Monday.

Management's most recent proposal called for cutting 120 Guild jobs through a combination of buyouts and selective layoffs. Neither management nor the union can say how many of those jobs will come from the newsroom, which represents about half the Guild's membership.

"Regardless of how many people we're going to lose, the journalism is going to suffer," said Chronicle transportation reporter Michael Cabanatuan, who is president of the Guild local.

Union officials said this was the one of the most difficult labor negotiations in decades. Some journalists said they didn't know whether they could afford to stay at the paper if they had to go out on the picket line.

"The mood of the newsroom is dour," said reporter Stacy Finz. "It's hard to get any work done. Everyone's really worried."

The union had countered with an offer to allow performance reviews that could lead to dismissal, so journalists and support staff could have a chance to prove they were working satisfactorily and the union would have a chance to defend them. But the Hearst Corporation, the Chronicle's corporate parent, rejected that idea, Mr. Cabanatuan said. Management said that if that the union doesn't agree to that and other changes by July 25, the deal will only get worse.

"We gave them what we thought was our best offer," said Patricia Hoyt, a Chronicle spokeswoman. "We're still optimistic regarding a successful conclusion with all of the unions."

Management also demanded a range of other concessions including pay cuts of up to 24 percent (though not among newsroom staff), reduced pension payouts upon retirement, a week less vacation for senior employees and less flexible schedules for parents and journalists who want to take unpaid leave to do a journalism fellowship or write a book, according to a summary provided by the union.

Ms. Hoyt objected to some of the characterizations, but would not specify which ones were in accurate, saying, "We're not going to negotiate in public."

Some journalists said the leave provisions in particular seemed vindictive and would only save a small amount of money.

"What they're saying is, 'We don't care that much about journalism. We care about the bottom line,'" Said Ms. Finz, who is also a member of the Grade the News journalist advisory board.

"If that's the way the contract looks, I'll vote against it," she said. "I sympathize with the Chronicle and understand they're losing money. But I'm not the one who got them into this. Certainly no one expected hefty raises. But givebacks? What are we going to tell our mortgage companies?"

The paper's publisher, Frank Vega, has been on strike watch since the Guild's contract expired July 1. The paper has reached tentative agreements with three of nine other unions. But one, the Web Pressmen and Prepress Workers' Union, has already picketed the Chronicle's Fifth and Mission Street headquarters, where management has painted white property-boundary lines on the street in preparation for a strike, lockout or other physical confrontation.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian reported that Mr. Vega sent an ominous-sounding memo to the staff last week suggesting the paper could weather a strike using 300 managers to put out the paper on an emergency basis. It gives "tips for crossing a picket line," and calls for food and cots so employees can remain in the building for days at a time.

Mr. Vega last headed the Detroit Newspaper Agency, the partnership between the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, where a long and bitter strike starting in 1995 cost the papers hundreds of millions of dollars.

The San Francisco Newspaper Guild is still in negotiations with management, but its leaders say they were surprised to see their suggestions discarded.

"Our effort all along has been to help them out" in agreeing to performance reviews that could lead to dismissal, Mr. Cabanatuan said. Now the company wants to have the leeway to fire employees it doesn't like, regardless of seniority. The contract that expired July 1 called for any layoffs to be done in reverse order of hiring.

"We understand that they're losing money," he said. "We were trying to be good Samaritans, and we got stabbed in the back."

The paper is in a strong position to seek union concessions because it opened its financial records to a union auditor, who confirmed that the Chronicle lost more than $62 million last year. Ms. Hoyt said that in the last two months the paper has been losing money at a faster rate -- about two million dollars a week* -- though the loss was less earlier this year.

Because Hearst is a privately held company, it is under no obligation to explain its finances to the public. While the union has confirmed the multimillion-dollar losses, it doesn't know all the details, such as the salary and benefits of the publisher. The union said the paper is being mismanaged and has too many managers per employee.

The loss of 120 jobs from the Guild would be the steepest onetime workforce cut since the Chronicle merged its staff with that of the San Francisco Examiner in 2000, when Hearst bought the Chronicle while selling the Examiner. The union estimates that the Chronicle has lost about 200 Guild jobs since then.

Doug Cuthbertson, the Guild executive officer, speculated in a memo to the staff that Hearst might consider selling the paper either as a business or an asset sale, which would "so deeply damage the Chronicle's circulation and advertising base that it would never recover."

UPDATE 7/20/05: The National Writers Union is "telling our members throughout the country that they are NOT to work for the Chronicle if there is a strike or lockout affecting ANY of the unions representing workers there," writes Richard Knee, acting Journalism Division chair of NWU's Bay Area chapter, whose local membership numbers about 300.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained the wrong time interval for the Chronicle's claimed financial losses. It is $2 million a week, not a month.