Monday's drizzling rain was miserable, but it didn't stop dozens of Commercial Appeal employees from marching up and down Union Avenue in front of their building, picket signs in hand.
"I'm not having a Great Day at the CA," one sign read. Most offered support for the Memphis Newspaper Guild's bargaining team, which has been negotiating a new contract since November of last year.
As the guild has softened its demands, the CA has grown increasingly aggressive, hiring Nashville attorney Michael Zinser, a well-known union buster, as their lead negotiator. Zinser, who brags about his successful anti-labor track record, once won a case allowing a Wyoming newspaper to fire two editors because they refused to honor a "request" that all employees wear anti-union lapel buttons. He also represented the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, in a frozen-wage war of attrition with the paper's union employees.
There have been eight layoffs announced at the CA in the editorial, production services, and housekeeping departments, but layoffs are only one reason behind the picketing. The Memphis Newspaper Guild is fighting to keep annual pay raises in place, while the CA's negotiators are pushing for "merit-based" pay raises.
"It's black Monday here at The Commercial Appeal," said Mark Watson, president of the Memphis Newspaper Guild. "We're upset with the company for laying people off at the same time they are also hiring a new general manager and working to create new management positions. We just don't see this as being fair. We see it as being greedy, and quite frankly, we see it as bad management."
Inside the building, many CA employees keep photographs of Zinser, with devilish horns added, at their desks. Last week, black helium-filled balloons went up in the building in response to layoffs and contract negotiations that seem to be going nowhere.
"The company has taken a very adversarial approach," said CA medical reporter Mary Powers. "And they've done this at a time when the employees are willing to work in a very unified way to produce a better product. It's unfortunate."
Arts and culture writer Fredric Koeppel agrees. "We're really dismayed," he said. "We're trying to get a contract. The company is laying off people, and we found out last week that advertising rates are going up. All of these things happening together is really unfair."
"Editorial employees haven't had a raise in two years," said another member of the staff, who requested that his name be withheld. "They obviously want to bust the union. We've got to start showing them that we're going to be organized, and we're going to be serious about getting them to change their mean-spirited ways at the bargaining table."
Literature distributed by protesters referred to comments made by Chris Peck, the CA's executive editor, at a recent meeting. According to the flyers, Peck noted a 17 percent reduction in his editorial force at a time when Scripps-Howard, the CA's parent company, has experienced unprecedented growth in stock prices and a significant infusion of capital. Since 2002, the media company's stock has doubled and split, going from just under $50 a share to a little more than $100 a share.
After word leaked out about Monday's protest, CA president John Wilcox sent a memo to employees: "The company, too, regrets the necessity of eliminating jobs. Although we don't think public protests will improve the internal climate or help us, as a team, produce a top-quality newspaper in changing times, we recognize the right of the union to assemble and express its opinion in any lawful manner. ... Monday will be a normal work day. We will produce the newspaper as usual and you have no reason to be concerned. As always, the management team and I appreciate the good work that you do."
Many of the picketing employees noted that Wilcox often shows his "appreciation" via e-mail.
"If you do something good, he'll send you an e-mail telling you that he liked it," said a CA staffer who asked that his name be withheld. "But it's not about words. It's about deeds." •