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Paper Trail

After seven years, negotiations between The Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Newspaper Guild have reached an impasse — and change is coming.

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What exactly are we saving if we follow the instructions on the Memphis Newspaper Guild-sponsored billboard and visit SaveOurCa.com? Are we helping to save The Commercial Appeal, which, like so many daily newspapers around the country, needs all the help it can get? Or is the website a tool to get people to lobby CA publisher Joseph Pepe to save locally held jobs that might otherwise be sent out of state or overseas? Or could it be that when the Newspaper Guild asks us to "save" the CA, they are really asking us to support and save the guild, which has taken a beating in recent years?

The CA's contract negotiators appear at this point to have out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and outlasted the guild over the course of a protracted seven-year contract negotiation that likely will end later this month, when the AFL-CIO-affiliated union will vote to accept or reject the CA's final contract offer.

The new contract represents something of a lose/lose situation for the guild, whose options are limited by anti-strike language in the agreement. If its members reject the contract, the guild will be at odds with The Commercial Appeal with no guarantee of a better offer. If its members ratify the contract, some employees will receive guaranteed raises. Other jobs will be outsourced and employees will be given two weeks of severance pay. The strong contract provisions that currently prevent guild employees from being outsourced from their jobs are eliminated in the new contract.

E.W. Scripps, the CA's Cincinnati-based parent company, has been clear about its plans to consolidate resources and its willingness to cut its labor force to maintain profit margins. This statement is from the company's 2009 state of the company report: "If print advertising continues the downward trend of recent years and the audiences on digital platforms cannot be quickly monetized at higher levels, we may not be able to profitably support the level of journalism expected by readers."

The Commercial Appeal's "final offer," which the guild's leadership sees as unfavorable to labor, prompted the union to hire GMMB, a Washington D.C.-based consulting and advertising firm used by Team Obama in the 2008 presidential elections. In April, GMMB launched a campaign using Internet advertising and billboards to drive people to

SaveOurCA.com. The website informs visitors that management at The Commercial Appeal "wants the right to fire every employee at the newspaper and outsource every job to India, other states, or to lower-wage workers in the Memphis area."

Since the advertising campaign began, the CA's bargaining team has made some concessions, including the restoration of a so-called evergreen clause, which preserves the terms of an existing contract beyond its expiration date until a new contract is in place. Memphis Newspaper Guild president Daniel Connolly sees this as one of the biggest coups for the guild since negotiations began in 2003. Others aren't convinced.

"Honestly, it's not even a trade," says Mediaverse blogger Richard Thompson, a former CA reporter and guild officer. Thompson fears that the evergreen clause is useless if the union has no ability to impact outsourcing and layoff decisions. "So, yes, workers will still have a union," he says, "but to do what?"

The outsourcing issue isn't new. And this isn't the guild's first attempt to involve the public in the debate. Two years ago, CA employees responded to layoffs, outsourcing, and slow-moving contract negotiations by staging a bit of early-morning performance art. In a video that was posted on YouTube, Christopher Blank, then the CA's performing arts writer, wore a teal blazer and played "Chad," a slimy representative of Career Travels, a fictitious branch of E.W. Scripps.

"It's a new initiative by The Commercial Appeal and Scripps Howard to send jobs overseas," Chad gushed. Blank and other guild members did their best in the video to get people "excited" about the possibilities of moving to exotic places like India in search of work. "The future is not here. It's over there," Chad said, pointing to the east.

One year later, Blank became a casualty of company-wide layoffs, and his job was outsourced to a freelance writer — named Christopher Blank — who happened to be out of work and uniquely qualified for the job.

Bill Day, the CA's former editorial cartoonist, says that, like Blank, he also was given the opportunity to continue working for the paper as a freelancer after being laid off in 2009. Day, who was recently awarded the RFK Journalism Award for Editorial Cartooning, says he declined the offer because he simply couldn't see himself drawing for the people who had just fired him.

"I wonder how many people noticed the Jeff Stahler cartoon that The Commercial Appeal ran a few days ago?" Day asks, a bitter edge creeping into his voice. "One man is offering another man a job. He says it's 20 hours a week, no sick days, no 401(k), no insurance, no nothing. And the other guy, who's smiling, says, 'Great, I'll take it!' It's ironic that they ran this cartoon in the CA, because that's exactly what they are trying to do. It's what they are doing."

Connolly fears that customer service jobs are the ones most vulnerable to foreign outsourcing, but he is cautious about speculating on the record whether or not the new agreement will result in new layoffs. He wasn't nearly so shy about comparing the CA's management to Sesame Street's Cookie Monster during a recent PowerPoint presentation for guild members.

"Suppose Cookie Monster asks for the right to eat all of our cookies," Connolly posited. "He doesn't ask to eat them; he just asks for the right. Now what do you think will happen if we give Cookie Monster that right?'"

When a negotiation process goes on for this long, it generates a lot of paperwork. Connolly wants to review everything before the proposed vote, to make sure nothing important has been overlooked or forgotten due to guild leadership changes over the years.

"Negotiations are always contentious," says CA writer and former guild president Lela Garlington. Garlington signed the union's last mutually agreed upon contract with the CA. "One side always wants to take something away," she says. "This last negotiation has been atrocious."

The current bargaining process began in a watershed year for The Commercial Apeal. Community journalism advocate Chris Peck succeeded Angus McEachran as the newspaper's editor, and the newspaper began to change almost immediately. Pictures and headlines got bigger. The amount of reader-supplied copy expanded. And eight newsroom employees accepted a voluntary early-retirement package. It was all part of a plan.

"You're going to see changes," Peck told Flyer reporter Mary Cashiola at that time, and he wasn't understating his case. "We can't assume that doing the same thing we've been doing is going to build readership," he continued, outlining a plan for the future that included the creation of several reader-based community sections.

Peck's editorial staff wasn't the only division at the CA that was trying out new things. On November 11, 2003, management delivered its first contract proposal to the Memphis Newspaper Guild. It was essentially a copy of the previous contract with all the protections from outsourcing deleted. The guild's evergreen clause also had been eliminated. "Disloyalty" and inter-office dating were added to the list of acceptable reasons for terminating an employee.

"If you belong to a union, your employer has to supply a reason for terminating you," Connolly says, flipping through pages in the proposed contract. "You can't be fired because somebody doesn't like the way you look." He points to the word "disloyalty." "That could mean anything," he says.

On August 9, 2004, Michael Zinser, a Nashville attorney noted for his work with communication companies and for his strong anti-labor track record, tried to put the heat on the guild by filing a federal declaratory action lawsuit on behalf of the CA. The purpose was to free the paper from the evergreen clause and to free the CA from any legal obligation to arbitrate employee grievances. In the winter of 2006, U.S. district court judge J. Daniel Breen denied the CA's motion and compelled the newspaper to resume arbitration.

Zinser, who served for a time as the CA's lead contract negotiator, has a history of fighting protracted battles of attrition. His oft-stated motto is "Never, never, never, never give up." Zinser, who negotiated on behalf of Peck's previous paper, the Spokane Spokesman-Review, through the decertification of its union in 1997, became so hated that guild employees kept defaced pictures of him at their desks.

Richard Thompson describes the "Zinser experience" as frustrating but also sees it as having a positive effect on the guild. "It led to a bit of activism," he says. "Because employees protested either with T-shirts or balloons or pamphleteering or some kind of act to let the company know that we didn't want Zinser around. Eventually, management switched attorneys, and the membership felt like that was a victory."

In 2005, after several more rounds of layoffs, CA publisher John Wilcox resigned to take over the struggling San Francisco Examiner. He was replaced by Pepe (who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article). Pepe said at the time that the CA was at a crossroads. The paper, he said, had a choice between growth and something he called "death mode." "If we grow, we've got to add people," Pepe told the Flyer. "If we're going to continue to write local, local, local, and not do so at the expense of what we do well as a major metropolitan newspaper, you've got to have people to do it."

Members of the Newspaper Guild rejoiced when Zinser left the building, but that excitement was short-lived because it was quickly apparent that only the names changed. The tactics remained the same.

"In a real negotiation, two sides work toward mutually acceptable goals — like increasing company profits and saving money," Connolly says. He cites the guild's efforts in 2009 to stave off additional layoffs. The guild proposed a two-year pension freeze that Connolly says would have saved the CA $1.2 million. "They never said, 'That's not enough; we want more,'" Connolly says. "They just said no." Management also rejected guild proposals that would have allowed temporary pay cuts and unpaid employee furloughs.

Also in 2005, The Commercial Appeal was broken up into several "hyper-local" regional Appeals, each with its own front page and special sections. When that plan failed to increase readership and revenue numbers, the CA was reconsolidated into a single metropolitan paper.

In October 2007, the CA made headlines of its own when it was revealed that the newspaper's management had crafted a policy for generating revenue by allowing advertisers to "sponsor" editorial space. As Flyer senior editor John Branston reported at the time: "It all started with two little words: 'sponsored by.'" Those words were situated next to several commercial real estate shorts collectively titled "Done Deals."

In an e-mail explaining the CA's decision, Chris Peck wrote: "The Commercial Appeal, like most newspapers these days, is looking for ways to monetize content." Peck added that monetized content was part of a new business model that will support journalism in the future. "The Web is way ahead of newspapers on this," he added. "Online, many ads already are linked directly to particular content." However, a sponsored series of articles about business in China was scrapped after as many as 50 members of the paper's editorial staff protested the policy.

Although the internal protest wasn't specifically guild-related, it's not hard to imagine things going differently in a circumstance where employees don't have the right to arbitration. "Being part of a union gives members significant free speech rights," Connolly says, offering the guild's billboard campaign as a prime example. "Conducting a billboard campaign against your employer is unthinkable if you don't have a union."

In the midst of all these steps and missteps, contract negotiations dragged on. Many employees took early retirement, and many more were laid off. Others chose not to support the guild. Today, only 92 out of 208 guild-covered employees are actually guild members. That could signal to management that most of its employees aren't engaged in the bargaining process and may not support the staff members who are.

"New people come into the company and they see a union that hasn't been successful," Connolly concedes. Now, the bargaining process is approaching endgame, and the guild must choose between an "unfavorable" contract or the uncertainties of what Connolly calls "going to war" with the newspaper. That process would probably involve guild members distributing anti-CA propaganda near businesses that advertise in the paper.

So what about the guild's advertising campaign? Is it successful? Is the CA being "saved"? Can the guild be saved? "The ad folks tell me that there have been over 2,000 visits to the site SaveOurCa.com so far," Connolly wrote in an April 30th e-mail. He speculates that at least one out of 20 people who've visited the site have made some contact with the CA's publisher. As of May 4th, the guild's Facebook effort, "Save Memphis News and Memphis Jobs," which launched in March, has 460 members.

"We've had some internal mobilization going, too," Connolly says. "One thing we did was distribute green table tents with the words "I like Memphis and I like my job" at 495 Union and in satellite offices, and if you were to walk into a CA office today, you would see the green signs everywhere."

Billboards? Ads? Little Green Signs? A website? Will any of it matter once the terms of the new agreement are in place and management has the ability to outsource jobs at will? Connolly remains hopeful, but only time will tell.

One thing is sure: More change is coming.

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