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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 02:19 am

Look for the union label

SJ-R organizes after empty promises

The mood was upbeat last Friday at Floyd’s Thirst Parlor as State Journal-Register journalists gathered to celebrate the newsroom’s new status as a union shop.

The 26-4 vote earlier that day in favor of forming a union was a shellacking for management, which couldn’t make a case that employees at Springfield’s embattled daily newspaper are better off on their own than under the umbrella of the United Media Guild, which also represents employees at the Peoria Journal Star and the Pekin Daily Times, which, like the Springfield paper, are owned by GateHouse Media.

In its quest to stop the union, management sent mailers to employees’ homes and held meetings in the workplace that were long on rhetoric and short on specifics, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. A line graph presented at one meeting, for example, showed that newspaper expenses and revenue will intersect at some point and render the business unprofitable. But the graph included no numbers or dates to indicate when that might happen or how much money was involved.

“It was two lines on a blank piece of paper,” said one reporter, who professed himself baffled by what management was attempting to illustrate. “It showed expenses going up, although I’m not sure what that meant. The context was we need to keep costs low or these lines will intersect sooner. I don’t know how costs are going up because we haven’t had raises in five years.”

Raises were promised late last year by GateHouse CEO Michael Reed.

“We will once again implement merit increases starting in the third quarter of 2012,” Reed wrote in a Dec. 13 memo. “Yes, we are looking to reduce our costs and will continue to do so in certain areas, but we are also increasing our investment in areas that are most important for growth. One of those areas is you – our employees.”

Weeks later, the bloodletting began, with scores of State Journal-Register employees being terminated, including editorial cartoonist Chris Britt and the entire ad design department. Before it ended, even the human resources director who handed out pink slips lost her job. The copy desk was eliminated last summer at a loss of more than a half-dozen newsroom jobs. Meanwhile, no raises came, and Reed in a June 21 memo told remaining employees that they shouldn’t hold their collective breath.

Raises, Reed wrote, would be tied to profitability, and every employee has the opportunity to affect earnings, digital revenue growth, circulation and total revenue. The ultimate fine print came near the end of the memo in which Reed said that GateHouse is a company that advertisers, customers, readers and employees can be proud of.

“The (merit increase) Program may be subject to change from time to time and/or may be discontinued at any time, at the company’s sole discretion,” Reed wrote.

The other shoe dropped on July 20, when Richard Johnston, the incoming publisher, and Mike Petrak, interim publisher, told employees via a memo that they shouldn’t expect any changes in their paychecks.

“Many of you have said that you believed that raises were coming back in January,” the executives wrote. “It’s our understanding that those raises were contingent on the newspaper achieving planned financial goals. The necessity of achieving those goals was apparently not clearly communicated to all of you. We apologize for that miscommunication and pledge to you that we will make every effort to communicate clearly and accurately with you moving forward. In the near term, salaries and wages are not likely to change until we can stabilize our revenues and get them growing again.”

While State Journal-Register employees have endured a pay freeze, Reed saw his annual bonus jump from $500,000 to $750,000 in 2011. Walt Lafferty, the former State Journal-Register publisher who was dismissed last summer after presiding over mass layoffs, has also landed on his feet. He is now controller at the Rockford Register Star, a GateHouse property.

Now that State Journal-Register employees have unionized, prospects of raises are even more dim, given that the company from the start has said that the elusive merit-increase program won’t apply to workers covered by collective bargaining agreements. But money wasn’t on the minds of the journalists who gathered last Friday at Floyd’s, where they enjoyed pizza, chicken nuggets, meatballs and an open bar, all paid for by their new union. It is not, employees agreed, about the Benjamins. It’s about good journalism and holding on to what they have while GateHouse outsources everything from circulation to ad design at more than 330 newspapers throughout the nation.

“The vote means that employees are very hopeful for the future, that a union can help to ensure that we have local jobs and high-quality journalism at the State Journal-Register in the future,” said Dean Olsen, a veteran reporter who helped organize his colleagues. “I think the newsroom is a pretty tight-knit group of dedicated professionals. We all care about the future of the SJ-R.”

Johnston, the newpaper’s publisher, did not respond to an email seeking comment, nor did anyone at GateHouse headquarters answer an emailed query.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

Click below to read memos from management to State Journal-Register employees

Memo #1

Memo #2

Memo #3

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