By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
A federal judge has blocked the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from laying off, reducing hours and/or stripping away health benefits from dozens of its employees. The action against the paper’s Teamster-represented employees was scheduled to take effect tomorrow, Nov. 30.
After the Post-Gazette announced the layoffs earlier this month, the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. It then filed a motion for a temporary injunction to halt the layoffs from going forward. Earlier this year, the paper announced it would be reducing its number of print paper days to three, the next step in an as-of-yet undisclosed plan to make the paper an all-digital product. Ironically, while the paper is trying to reduce the amount of staff to deal with the decline in print days, subscribers are still paying the same rate they did for an everyday product.
The union argues that the layoffs would violate its collective bargaining agreement which calls for such matters to be negotiated and failing that, be decided by an arbitrator. The contract for all P-G unions expired nearly three years ago and all have been operating under the last approved deal.
However, P-G ownership claimed that there is no CBA and their unilateral decision was proper and the court lacked jurisdiction to intervene. However, U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan dismissed that notion.
Ranjan wrote: “Under established precedent, this court has the authority to preserve the status quo in order to protect the parties’ rights to arbitrate their labor disputes. As such, the court finds that it can act here. And given the obvious irreparable harm that many of the affected employees will face in just a few days, the court grants the union’s motion for emergency relief.”
Thirty employees face layoffs, including three press-workers. The rest include drivers and mailroom employees. The P-G then planned to reduce another 40 employees parttime, which would cost them their health insurance benefits. Ranjan ruled that this was improper.
“The Union and its members will be irreparably harmed by, at a minimum, the elimination of health insurance coverage for dozens of workers if the status quo is not maintained,” Ranjan wrote. “…The CBA requires the Post-Gazette to provide health insurance benefits to its employees. The CBA also provides that “[a]ny reductions in schedules or routes shall not be permitted to cause a reduction in the number of employees in the Transportation Department.”
The decision seemed like a forgone conclusion because the P-G, according to Ranjan, didn’t file a response to the union’s motion but rather filed a motion to dismiss because the court lacked jurisdiction to intervene. Ranjan disagreed.
“The Court encouraged the PostGazette to file an omnibus opposition to the Union’s motion in which it would raise any legal arguments about the Court’s exercise of jurisdiction and present factual evidence to rebut the Union’s affidavits and documentary submissions,” Ranjan wrote. “Instead, the Post-Gazette moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing, in several different ways, that the Court lacked the authority to hear the case at all. Thus, against the facts alleged by the Union in the complaint and in its motion, along with the documents and multiple witness declarations that the Union submitted, the Post-Gazette presented almost no competing evidence.”
This ruling comes as P-G editorial employees have been fighting back against what they describe as “mistreatment” by Publisher John Robinson Block and Editor Keith Burris. In protest of the “mistreatment of union members and managers” by Block, his brother Allan (chairman of Block Communications) and Burris, newsroom members of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh have been on a byline strike since November 20. In the first seven days of the action, which took place after the union held a unanimous “no-confidence vote” against Block and Burris,313 bylines and credit lines have been withheld. On Dec. 10, the Pittsburgh Current will be holding a solidarity byline strike in its print issue. Other writers are also joining in the action.
The Post-Gazette is a big employer in the city and many people have been following this story. Interestingly, after the judge’s ruling came down, the P-G covered the news with a four-paragraph brief buried on the bottom of the page. This was done despite the fact that a reporter did a complete story on the ruling that management chose not to run.
Teamsters’ attorney Joe Pass told the Current that the paper’s management has no interest in making a deal with any of the unions and says their end result is to try and break the unions. “We’ve been trying to get a contract for three years, obviously they don’t want an agreement,” Pass says. “For example, in their last, best offer, they wanted employees to pay 30 percent of the healthcare and if we agreed to that deal, after we signed they could unilaterally change the employee’s contribution to a higher number or get rid of the coverage all together. Who the hell would sign that.
“But that’s the kind of atmosphere we’ve been working in.”
For the time being, Pass says the union will now make sure that the P-G follows the court’s orders, which he expects the paper will appeal, and restore the jobs and benefits. If not, Pass says they will return to the court to ask that the P_G be held in contempt.
“I”ve been representing employees at this paper since the 1970s and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Pass says. “We’ve made a hundred million dollars in concessions and haven’t received a raise in 14 years while they continue to take more of those wages for healthcare. They just don’t care about the people who serve them.”