David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Newspaper Wars Reach San Jose
by David Bacon

SAN JOSE (11/28/94) - For ten years, newspaper wars have spread across the United States, forcing unions into strikes in city after city. Suddenly, jobs and conditions which seemed secure have become insubstantial, and often have disappeared altogether.

Some of these strikes have been won, and some lost. But regardless of their outcome, they've been all-consuming battles, leaving a trail of dead newspapers, broken unions, and bitter workers in their wake. In this Pyrrhic process, newspapers have become concentrated in fewer hands, leaving many major American cities with only one.

This year the wars arrived in the Bay Area. San Francisco's two newspapers, the Examiner and the Chronicle, and their joint-venture production and distribution arm, the Newspaper Agency, forced a twelve-day strike on their workers. The strike is over, at least for now, but warfare against the newspaper unions continues as though it wasn't.

Last week, the Newspaper Guild Local 98 broke off negotiations with the Mercury News. The newspaper wars may be reaching San Jose.

"The Merc is making absolutely no movement," says Bill Davis, a reporter and Local 98's chief executive officer. "In some cases, management has actually moved backwards." John Hammett, the Mercury News senior vice president in charge of negotiations, confirms that management has not budged: "The Guild just doesn't want to face the music. We've made proposals to contain costs and they just keep saying no."

Four concession demands separate management and Guild negotiators in the Mercury talks. First, the Mercury wants 37 people removed from the bargaining unit, and reclassified as managers. They would have to resign from the union, and would no longer be protected by a union contract or the National Labor Relations Act.

Second, management has proposed a lower-tier pay scale for writers who work on weekly sections of the paper, which are now written by regular reporters. The current reporter pay scale starts at $540/week for a writer with no experience, and tops out at $887 for those with six years or more. The new proposal would start at $350/week, and top out at $475.

When union negotiators pointed out that a copy clerk who handles the material written by these new, second-tier employees would make more money than the writers themselves, management responded by proposing to lower their wages as well, to $262/week.

A third concession would expand the number of people who sell advertising on a commission-only basis from 7 to 26. Commission-only sales is a form of piecework, and the union fears the newspaper is moving to set up a boilerroom operation to sell advertising.

Finally, management negotiators propose that reporters begin carrying cameras. For writers, the additional responsibility of taking pictures makes interviewing and covering stories more difficult. According to Steve Wright, Merc assistant city editor and union press spokesperson, photographers see the proposal to fill the pages with fuzzy mugshots as a real come-down from the photojournalism which won the paper awards and gave it a reputation.

Hammett says the paper's newsprint costs are rising 28 percent this year and that cost savings are needed to keep its profitability from dropping. "After the cost of our payroll, newsprint is our second largest cost item," Hammett says. "We can save money by reducing labor costs or reducing the number of employees-by laying people off."

The contract between the Mercury News and the newspaper unions expired a year ago, in November, 1993. Bargaining sessions have taken place every week on Wednesday, since before the expiration. Initially, agreement was reached quickly on issues that the union considers survival questions, such as mandatory union membership and the grievance procedure. But last March, Davis says, movement froze on the remaining issues. "That's true," concedes Hammett.

For a good part of the past year, participants in negotiations have assumed that the Mercury News would wait to see the outcome of the talks in San Francisco. On the one hand, they thought, the paper would be reluctant to agree to substantially increased costs over those of its competitors. On the other hand, if unions were forced to give concessions in San Francisco, the Mercury News would undoubtedly ask for them in San Jose as well. But the Guild walkout from last week's session is an indication of rising frustration at this strategy.

A level playing field among the three big Bay Area dailies used to be guaranteed through joint negotiations. Since 1968, when the Chronicle and Examiner were struck for two months, all the unions have negotiated together over economic issues with all three papers, through the Conference of Newspaper Unions. Member unions include both Local 98 of the Newspaper Guild in San Jose, and Local 52 in San Francisco, Teamsters Locals 296 and 921, Web Pressmen Local 4, Service Employees Locals 87 and 1877, Mailers Union Local 15, and Typographical Union Local 21, among others.

Joint negotiations between the three papers and their many unions not only eliminated competition based on cutting wages, but also solved one of the historic weaknesses of newspaper unions. For over a century, newspaper strikes have been broken when employers were able to convince members of one union to cross the picketlines of another. In forming the conference, each of the unions agreed to sign its contract only when the other unions also signed, and to respect any authorized strike.

Normally, newspaper bargaining is pretty hardball, and strike votes have been taken before agreement was reached in almost every set of negotiations since the conference started. But there has been no Bay Area newspaper strike in a quarter of a century.

Over a year ago, however, things began to seem different. In San Francisco, the de Young family, owners of the Chronicle and reportedly unhappy with its 15% profit margin, replaced Richard Theriot with Nan McEvoy as publisher. While an offer by William Randolph Hearst, owner of the Examiner, to buy the paper for $800 million was turned down in 1993, rumors continued that the paper was up for sale. Unions feared, and still do, that a strike might be used to convince the Justice Department to lift anti-trust restrictions preventing the Examiner from buying the Chronicle, and merging them into one morning paper.

McEvoy brought in John Sias, who previously headed Capital Cities Communications, to run the Chronicle. Sias in turn hired Jim Hale, publisher of the Capital Cities-run Kansas City Star, to run the Newspaper Agency.

Sias also hired King and Ballow, which set off alarms in union offices from San Francisco to Washington D.C. The King and Ballow lawfirm has a reputation for provoking strikes and breaking unions in the newspaper industry. The firm represented the Chicago Tribune, where a long strike broke the typographical union in the late 1980s.

At the New York Daily News , King and Ballow orchestrated a five-month long walkout, which newspaper unions made a national rallying cry. The strike finally led to the paper's purchase by news tycoon Robert Maxwell, who settled it. Maxwell's newspaper empire soon crumbled, however, and the paper was sold.

According to Ed Rosario, an executive board member of Web Pressmen Local 4, the key to winning the strikes in Pittsburgh and New York was the strength of the delivery unions. "Management could replace its pressmen," Rosario says, "and the people in the newsrooms. But although they could get a shell of a paper printed, they couldn't get it into the hands of any readers without the drivers. King and Ballow's whole strategy rested on trying to break them off from the other unions, and they weren't able to do it."

The San Francisco drivers union, Teamsters Local 921, knew that war was coming when, after hiring King and Ballow, the Newspaper Agency began to get rid of the young people who walk the paper routes. According to Andy Cirkelis, secretary-treasurer of 921, the strategy was simple. "First they get rid of the kids,"he says, "and bring in adults to drive the routes instead, throwing the papers from cars. Then they get rid of our drivers, since they can get the adults to come pick up their papers from a central distribution point. Once they weaken the drivers, it's much easier for them to go after the other unions."

"In San Jose we took the hit in the late 1980s," says Mike Amaral, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 296, when the Mercury News phased out its youth carrier program. Local 921 stopped the San Francisco youth layoffs by getting a court injunction. They began building a coalition between unions, youth advocacy groups and community organizations to prepare for a possible strike.

In March of this year, the San Francisco newspapers sent letters to their unions, telling them that for the first time since 1968, they would only reach agreement with each union separately. Negotiations deadlocked, and the unions filed legal charges. In July the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint, saying that management was bargaining in bad faith by refusing to continue joint negotiations. The Chronicle, the Examiner, and the Agency came back to the table.

In San Jose, the Mercury News decided to bargain separately from the San Francisco papers in September of last year. Knight-Ridder, who own the Merc, have used King and Ballow in the past, although not in San Jose. Some observers speculate that the Mercury didn't want to buy into the impending war between the San Francisco papers and their unions. According to Wright, "the Mercury has been much less hostile to collective bargaining for the last 15 years."

In San Francisco, negotiations made little progress as a Halloween strike deadline approached. A last-minute, 24-hour session at the Holiday Inn delayed the inevitable for a day, and then the strike was on.

The unions were well-prepared. Even before the strike started, they began publishing their own newspaper, the Free Press. Major advertisers like Macy's and the Emporium hedged their bets by placing full page ads in both the strikers' newspaper, and the much thinner Chronicle and Examiner, which management continued publishing. The Chronicle alleged it was printing upwards of 300,000 copies daily, and the Examiner close to 100,000. According to the unions, thousands of papers were dumped when they couldn't be delivered throughout the city.

Tensions ran high as management hired over 350 Huffmaster guards, and began advertising for strikebreakers. In Mountain View, Kirk Wilson, a striking driver, was electrocuted after mistakenly cutting power lines into an Agency distribution facility. A 25-year employee, whose father was a also a truck driver, Wilson was worried about the possible elimination of 150 historically-secure Teamster jobs, according to the Free Press.

In a controversial move, the Mercury News ran a full-page advertisement for strikebreakers. Knowing that it was running the risk of antagonizing its own workers, who turned out for solidarity picketlines with the San Francisco strikers throughout the strike, Jay Harris, the Mercury's publisher, posted a memo to them. He said that it was simply a business decision, and that "by accepting the ad we are not taking sides in the situation." One Merc reporter, who asked not to be identified, said that "everyone in the building was pissed off," and that the move soured feelings towards management.

After striking for twelve days, San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan brokered a compromise settlement. Most unions made small gains. According to Carl Hall, business reporter and Guild unit chair at the Chronicle, "we feel it was a victory, given what our members were looking at." Rosario says "they were out to destroy us, and we stopped them."

The biggest compromise was made by the drivers themselves, who agreed that after 90 days, management could begin to eliminate their jobs by attrition. But the Newspaper Agency, which employs the drivers, didn't wait 90 days. Claiming the papers had lost substantial circulation, it only called back 200 of the 640 drivers employed before the strike started. Dennis Miscofian, a San Francisco driver, says that many drivers were required to put in an additional 4 hours of overtime, and weren't called in to work the following day if they refused. When union stewards were dispatched to work, some were told that they were "unacceptable."

In the Examiner newsroom, Craig Marine, a reporter, was suspended for using the word "scab." Two pressmen were fired for calling other workers strikebreakers, and one for continuing to publish a strike newsletter.

Cirkelis believes that the Agency has fired between 100 and 150 youth carriers. The settlement which ended the strike is showing signs of flying apart. "There's a tremendous amount of anger out here," he says. "If we're forced to go out again, I can't predict how it will end. I think it might destroy the papers themselves." At presstime, unions were trying to get the mayor to intercede again to enforce the provisions of the original settlement. No union has yet signed a new contract. King and Ballow, the Huffmaster guards and the strikebreakers are all still at work.

None of the Chronicle's eleven stringers have been called back to work yet. Four worked in the Redwood City office, and one in San Jose, before the strike started. The Newspaper Guild tried unsuccessfully for four years to get them included under the union contract. Although they weren't union members, the union paid them some strike benefits during the twelve-day walkout. With the Chronicle's staff reduced to one person each in San Jose and Redwood City, coverage in the paper's peninsula edition is likely to fall off from its pre-strike level.

Together with the turmoil of the strike itself, this should benefit the Mercury News. But by all accounts, the paper didn't aggressively pursue more circulation in fringe areas like the peninsula and southern Alameda County. Advertising, however, "came pouring in, really rolling in," says Bill Davis.

On Ridder Park Drive, the sense is that the waiting game has gone on for too long. On Saturday, November 19, the paper appeared without any reporters' bylines in front of the leads. None of the regular columns were in their usual places either. After being notified by the columnists that they would not permit their names to run beside their photos, management decided to kill the columns entirely. Meanwhile, throughout the building, other workers wore buttons declaring their support for the byline strike.

This job action followed a series of others, organized by the Merc's 800 Guild members, and the 400 members of the other unions, to let management know that their patience is wearing thin. In the classified department, workers wear red t-shirts to work every Thursday to show support for the negotiating team. Twice, the hallways have been packed with union members on break, signing petitions expressing their determination to get negotiations moving.

Normally, reporters, photographers and editors in the newsroom, and workers in other departments, often work through breaks and lunch. "Management depends on our willingness to do this," one reporter comments, "to meet deadlines. But if they want our cooperation on a daily basis, we want theirs at the negotiating table." A work-to-rule movement is sweeping through the plant, in which employees abide by each rule and regulation, to show how much the paper depends on their flexibility and commitment.

"Management knows that the newsroom, and all the other departments at the paper, are solidly behind the negotiations," Davis says. "We don't want a poisoned atmosphere here like the one in San Francisco. Management there will pay a real price for that. But it's starting to get poisoned here as well. We're not going to sit at the table, and just negotiate with ourselves." Hammett seems disinclined to budge: "We're not in business to reduce our profitability beyond a certainpoint."

While neither Davis nor leaders of the other unions involved feel that the Mercury is out to break its unions, he calls the paper's tactics "scavenger bargaining," as management waits for events to take place in San Francisco. But what's taking place in San Francisco is a war, and the conflict could spread.

"If the first of the year arrives, and we start a second year without a raise, the level of anger will grow considerably," Wright declares. No one says they want a strike, but "pride only translates into work until you realize you're being stupid."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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