As of August 1, Denver Post journalists are working on an expired contract, and while negotiations are ongoing, there has been no substantial progress toward resolving a situation that has resulted in a single modest raise over the past ten years.
Moreover, the Post's ownership, funded by the vampiric Alden Global Capital hedge fund, is pushing for language that would make it even easier to oust salaried reporters, whose ranks have been slashed thanks to a series of cuts, including early 2018 downsizing that reduced the size of the already shrinking newsroom by nearly one-third.
According to Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for the Denver Newspaper Guild, which represents two bargaining units at the Post, "The company wants us to give up jurisdiction that would allow them to outsource any work at any time and displace employees in order to give the work to contractors."
This scenario is hardly unique for papers associated with MediaNews Group, also known as Digital First Media, the corporate entity that operates at the pleasure of Alden Global Capital; its representatives have not responded to interview requests from Westword at this writing. On July 31, contracts expired at twelve guilds in states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, California and Colorado. In 2016, the units bargained collectively and achieved a three-year contract that resulted in a 3 percent raise the first year, with options for extra wage bumps that failed to materialize in each of the next two. This time around, however, Mulligan says MediaNews/DFM is refusing to negotiate jointly and is instead huddling with the units one by one.
This approach, which seems likely to drag out the proceedings, will get even more complicated soon, especially here in Denver. Mulligan reveals that the contract for local mailers, who are in charge of inserting and bundling the physical newspapers, ends on September 12, and the agreement with the pressman's unit (as the name implies, members operate the printing press) is over on November 8. On top of that, drivers are on a month-to-month contract extension.
Even though the number of workers covered by these pacts has been decreasing over time, plenty of folks continue to be affected by the uncertainty. Mulligan says the Post's editorial department includes fifty union journalists — a far cry from a decade ago, when the newsroom employed in excess of 300 people. (He puts today's newsroom total at 66, counting sixteen "managers" not governed by the guild.) In addition, the second guild-represented unit at the Post includes what Mulligan describes as "92 employees in advertising, what’s left of circulation and finance, building and production maintenance, paper handling and a few other jobs."
There are around 150 mailers (although only sixty or so get regular shifts), just under seventy pressmen, and thirty or so drivers, plus a staff of five in the union for plate makers, who also take part in the printing process, all of whom are in various stages of negotiations with MediaNews/DFM.
Getting a new deal won't be easy. After all, Alden has a well-founded reputation for instituting layoffs to maintain its profit margin, which continues to be healthy despite the revenue shortfalls and assorted economic headwinds the traditional print business is facing. Earlier this year, as part of its failed hostile takeover of Gannett, the leading newspaper publisher in the country (which subsequently combined forces with GateHouse Media), the company revealed that its profit margin stood at 16 percent, the largest in the industry. "Their plea of poverty just doesn't ring true," Mulligan submits.
With that in mind, the Denver Newspaper Guild is pushing a proposal that was originally conceived for all twelve bargaining units: a 5 percent annual raise over the next three years, plus 401(k) contributions (the Post has a plan but puts no money in it) and a pledge to pay 80 percent of medical insurance premiums across the board, among other things.
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For its part, MediaNews/DFM wants the freedom to control the newsroom as it has other parts of the operation, Mulligan explains. Several years ago, for instance, "they compelled the union to agree to subcontracting circulation and customer service. Initially they went to Honduras, but that didn't work. They came back to the U.S. briefly and then went to Mexico — so if you call customer service now, you're talking to somebody in Mexico. For years, they had artists who did design work, but now that's being done exclusively by a contractor in India. And three years ago, they maneuvered to where we ended up having to agree to allow them to convert home delivery. Now it's done by independent contractors who function as the boss and subcontract to the carriers. That displaced 48 employees. So over the years, they've outsourced dozens and dozens of jobs."
Mulligan acknowledges that "newspaper revenue has been siphoned off to the Googles and Facebooks, and a lot of subscribers have dropped, because people believe they should be able to read the news for free online. But we know the company is making millions from these papers. They can afford it — and our proposal asks them to repurpose only a small amount of the profits they're sucking in and invest it in their employees, which is what responsible employers do."
At least one bargaining session between MediaNews/DFM and each of the twelve bargaining units has taken place thus far, and two in Denver. Mulligan says there's no hard-and-fast deadline for concluding the talks: "They can go on indefinitely. Both parties have a duty to bargain in good faith, but if they've exhausted that process and reached an impasse, the contract can be ended by either the employer or the union."
He adds, "The employees have a legal right to escalate up to and including a strike."