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A Reluctant Agreement

Memphis Newspaper Guild leaders bemoan new contract at The Commercial Appeal.

by Jacqueline Marino

he Memphis Newspaper Guild’s “fight for a fair contract” ended last week after nearly three years. Don’t feel bad if you missed it.

Neither the guild nor the city’s only daily newspaper did a thorough job keeping the public informed of morale-sapping labor problems at The Commercial Appeal over the last several years. Not surprisingly, the CA buried its infrequent updates in the back pages of the business section. And the guild’s awareness-raising stints included little more than an unimpressive spattering of “I’m not having a great day at the CA” car sun-shades in the parking lot and a company-bashing billboard across the street.

Still, for 444 employees at the CA, last week’s vote was big news. The employees have the new contract, but the company can claim the victory.

The contract approved by guild members was almost the same document – the CA’s “final and best offer” – they overwhelmingly rejected by a 126 to 37 vote back in February. The provision that would allow managers and other guild-exempt employees to do guild-member work still stood. The switch from one-week to two-week pay periods did too.

There were almost no concessions on management’s part, despite the guild’s attempts to pressure the company into improving retirement benefits and eliminating some measures that could weaken the guild in the future.

Although their leaders almost unanimously recommended rejecting the contract, guild members turned out an embarrassingly supportive vote of 121 to 61 in favor of it.

Several guild members indicated that the long-term consequences of approving the contract – the surrendering of certain guild protections and the possible elimination of future guild positions, among them – paled in comparison to the short-term benefits, namely retroactive 3-percent pay raises. Some employees will get as much as $5,000 as a result of the settlement. For employees who have gone without raises since 1995, the money was simply too good to pass up.

“A lot of people felt that if they made a strong showing during the vote for the first contract, the company would give,” says one guild member who didn’t want to be identified. “When that didn’t happen, they realized the company won, I might as well get my money.”

In short, the contract was approved not because it was the contract everyone wanted, but simply because it was the only contract offer on the table. Throughout the negotiations, the company steadfastly refused to make concessions, leaving the impression that the guild was weak and ineffectual.

To the outside observer, it certainly looked that way. Despite all the pro-labor rhetoric spewed at meetings, there were only a few organized displays of unity over the last two years: Handfuls of disgruntled guild members trolled busy intersections with signs during “informational pickets,” nearly 100 employees demonstrated outside company offices at 495 Union Avenue, and for about two weeks, some guild reporters pulled their bylines. (This was not a “byline strike” guild leaders stressed, just unhappy reporters exercising their right to remove their bylines.)

Before the February vote, Dan McQuade, the guild’s first vice president, indicated that the guild would not strike, taking away the biggest threat organized labor can pose to a newspaper company.

“Saying we won’t go on strike means we have no power,” says reporter Wayne Risher, a member of the bargaining committee. McQuade has said he opposed a strike because few people would join him on the picket line. The guild represents 444 employees in both blue- and white-collar positions, including editorial, advertising, maintenance, and inside circulation.

The union has lost several members since January. At the time of the vote, union membership had dipped to 52 percent of eligible employees.

Some members, like reporter Lela Garlington, the Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers of America’s regional international vice president, worried a continued stand-off could prompt more guild members to leave. At a meeting before the vote, she said she supported the contract despite the bargaining team’s stance.

“It’s in our best interest to pull together on this,” she says. “To get on with it is better than to drag this out.”

Although the new contract runs through January 2000, the bargaining team will be back at the table in a year. The company’s perspective on the new contract was not available since managing editor Henry Stokes did not return several telephone calls to his office last week.

On Thursday, McQuade and guild president Denise Pool expressed deep disappointment with the vote results. The last few contracts have meant more losses than gains for employees, and this one is no exception.

“We have given up a lot in recent years,” reads a guild flyer they passed out before the vote. “Remember commission sales? Remember our pension?”

There’s likely to be a lot of hard feelings among executive board members voting this week on whether to ratify the contract. There will be at least one dissenter.

“I will not sign this document,” McQuade says. “I will never vote for it.”

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