"We are very, very, very cautiously optimistic," says Mike Burrell, lead negotiator for the Memphis Newspaper Guild.
Burrell has been bargaining on behalf of the Memphis Newspaper Guild since its contract with The Commercial Appeal expired in January 2004. The optimism stems from the CA's decision to replace its lead negotiator, the notoriously anti-labor attorney Michael Zinser, with Richard Lowe of the Nashville law firm King & Ballow. The caution stems from the fact that King & Ballow is the firm where Zinser cut his union-busting teeth.
"[The Commercial Appeal] isn't disrespecting the process anymore," Burrell says. "And from that perspective, things are very positive. We were actually able to set a date for our next round of negotiations while we were sitting at the table together. That may not sound like much, but with Zinser there could be confrontations just trying to set a date. It could take weeks just to schedule a meeting."
Although there are several points of contention, the principal snag in negotiations continues to be the issue of merit pay versus scale pay. According to Burrell, the CA refuses to budge on its position that scale-based pay must be eliminated in favor of raises for individual merit.
"If [the elimination of scale pay] could come off the table, I think [the guild] would be in a position to reach an agreement in the short term," says Burrell.
Caution aside, Burrell sees the CA's replacement of Zinser with Lowe as a significant move. "It's a true indication that mistakes were made. The direction they chose to pursue was very time-consuming and very costly to everyone."
In a recent interview with the Flyer, CA publisher Joe Pepe blamed the hold-up on the nature of third-party negotiations, an idea that Burrell dismisses.
"It's not the process," Burrell says. "It's the way you approach the process. In reality, we wish there was no need for labor unions. But there is a serious need. The union is nothing more than the collective efforts of the employees to take care of themselves."
The guild and the CA are scheduled to sit down at the bargaining table again in mid-May.