Star Tribune Teamsters vote no to contract concessions


The proposed contract concessions were “unprecedented”: Star Tribune management wanted to cut wages of union drivers, pressmen and mailers by 10 percent, and those who are contractually due for automatic raises wouldn’t get them. Plus the press operators at the paper would’ve lost one week of vacation a year and the ability to earn overtime wages for working back-to-back shifts. But members of the papers’ Teamsters chapters agreed to reject the concessions yesterday, despite two locals voting to approve.

According to a source close to the union, “All three contracts are dead in the water, and management has to start over at the beginning.” The pressman’s union, GCC1-M, rejected the deal by a vote of 77 to 27, while the drivers (Local 638) and mailers (Local 120) voted to approve, 83 to 27 in favor and 92 to 42 respectively. Prior to the vote the unions agreed that unless all three locals voted to approve, the contract would die.

“The pressmen are heroes,” says the source. “They’re the first union to reject Avista’s concessions” — a reference to the New York private-equity firm that bought the paper in 2007.

There was opposition within the ranks. At three meetings held at Teamster 120’s office in Blaine yesterday, members of all three unions met to hear pros and cons of the package. Some argued that a no-vote might lead to the paper’s bankruptcy. Others countered by reciting quotes by Strib publisher Chris Harte’s assurance that they have no intention of declaring bankruptcy.

The concessions represent a “whole new ball game” strategically on Avista’s part, the source says: “Financial analysts at the time of [the paper’s] purchase said Avista wanted to cut costs and resell the paper. What better way to cut costs than force concessions down the throats of all the unions?”

Last week, members of the Star Tribune’s chapter of the Newspaper Guild approved a concessionary contract by a lopsided vote of 210 to 27 (although, it’s worth noting, the proposed cuts the Guild approved weren’t nearly as draconian as those management suggested to the Teamsters.) As a percentage, a greater number of Teamster drivers and mailers rejected the contract than did Guild members. Of that, a Star Tribune newsroom source, says of the Teamsters’ vote: “They showed a lot more backbone than the newsroom folks.”

Representatives of the unions were either unavailable or uninterested in discussing the vote.

Update: Teamsters for a Democratic Union has more on the story.

[Clarification: comments posted on Minnesota Independent site
I’m not sure what an “unequivocal assurance that they have no intention” means, but what Harte said is this:

“We recently hired the Blackstone Group to help us evaluate alternatives to our current capital structure, but that hardly merits a conclusion that we are near bankruptcy. In fact, Blackstone has substantial expertise in balance sheet restructurings through means other than statutory proceedings like bankruptcy.”

There wasn’t much of an assurance in this statement at all, only a denial that BK is inevitable. BK is clearly still on the table unless there are other statements that he’s made that were more adamant.

This vote makes a filing more likely, since that is about the only way the Strib can force a change in contract without Teamster agreement.

Paul Schmelzer:
You’re right, Erik. “Unequivocal” is definitely too strong a word. Thanks.