Election Section

MediaNews’ East Bay Papers Ratify Union Contract

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 08:01:00 PM

Pressed by repeated waves of downsizings, Bay Area journalists have been giving up pay, benefits and one of the hardest-won icons of the labor movement: pay differentials based on years of experience. 

But there’s good news amongst the bad in the overwhelming affirmative vote given by members of the California Media Workers Guild for their first-ever contract with Bay Area News Group-East Bay (BANG-EB). 

BANG is the Bay Area wing of newspaper magnate Dean Singleton’s MediaNews empire, and includes a majority of newspaper circulation in the Bay Area, ranging from the Marin Independent-Journal to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and includes the San Jose Mercury News. 

The East Bay unit includes the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, Fremont Argus, Vacaville Reporter, Vallejo Times-Herald, Hayward Daily-Review, Tri-Valley Herald and the San Joaquin Herald, as well as associated weekly papers and websites. 

Sara Steffens, who chairs the union East Bay unit, hailed Tuesday’s 57-2 vote in favor of the contract as a significant victory. 

The Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury had both been owned by the Kight-Ridder chain, which was purchased by the Sacramento-based McClatchy Co. McClatchy sold the two Bay Area papers to Singleton, who had already purchased the Alameda News Group, which owned the Oakland Tribune and other East Bay papers. 

Singleton created the East Bay division of BANG separately from the solidly union San Jose paper, and with the votes of workers at the non-union Contra Costa Times, he was able to unseat the guild from is other East Bay papers. 

Tuesday’s vote marks the first successful contract drive with BANG-EB, and while the contract lacks a traditional pay scale and provides only for a base pay of $39,000, Steffens said the accord will be a boon for employees making less than the new minimum. 

The downside is that the contract allows the company to propose future wage cuts, which become mandatory if workers aren’t able to agree on a settlement within two weeks after the reductions are proposed by the company. 

While the contract also bars strikes and walkouts, Steffens said that the drawbacks are outweighed by union recognition, provisions for arbitrations, just-cause dismissals and guaranteed severance pay. 

“This is a first contact, and we’re really, really happy because a lot of people said we wouldn’t be able to get it. It’s a ground floor and a good starting point,” she said. 

Tuesday’s vote on the East Bay contract followed by 24 hours a vote at the San Jose paper, when Guild members voted 127-39 to approve a new contract that provided for an immediate 7 percent wage cut, with another 2 percent reduction on Jan. 1. 

The San Jose contract also reduced vacation time for many workers, with a maximum of four weeks after nine years, and raised health insurance premiums. 

Sylvia Ulloa, local vice president and a member of the San Jose unit, said the Mercury News has been significantly downsized. 

“We had about 525 people in the newsroom at the newspaper’s peak,” she said. “When MediaNews bought us, we had about 350.” 

The number will drop to about 100 when another provision of the new contract kicks in. The pact allows MediaNews to consolidate all its copy editing functions in Walnut Creek, meaning that editors from within the community may no longer have the final purview over stories written about their communities. 

Of 30 copy editors who may be laid off, 15 could be rehired in Walnut Creek, according to the blog Paper Cuts. 

Both contracts will run for 18 months. 

May brought another flood of bad tidings for the newspaper business.  

Platinum Equity, the Beverly Hills investment fund which bought the San Diego Union-Tribune on the first of the month, followed three days later by a move to cut the paper’s staff by 192. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles police union, one of the fund’s major investors, demanded a house cleaning of the editorial page staff because of editorials they considered hostile to police. 

The month also saw the end of publication for the Tucson Citizen, which had been published longer than any other Arizona paper, and the announcement that the Ann Arbor News in Michigan will stop publishing July 23. Both will live in slimmed-down online formats. 

On the brighter side, May also brought the close of Trump, The Donald’s glossy exemplar of self-promotion. Word of the magazine’s folding came on May 19.