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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014 12:01 am

Rallying the troops

SJ-R staff schedules demonstration

State Journal-Register editorial employees will rally outside newspaper offices.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

 UPDATED OCT. 28 WITH VIDEO BELOW

After seven years of no raises, editorial employees at the State Journal-Register are asking the public to join them for a Monday rally outside newspaper offices on Ninth Street.

“Anybody can come by and march with us,” said Dean Olsen, medical reporter and chairman of the Springfield unit of the United Media Guild. “We’re going to be carrying posters and chanting. If people can’t march with us, we’re asking that they drive by and honk.”

The event scheduled for noon to 1 p.m. is the latest in a series of steps taken by the newsroom’s union to pressure GateHouse Media, parent company of the SJ-R, to agree to a contract that includes more money for employees.

The economic pressure on employees is serious enough that Olsen has taken a part-time job at McDonalds to help make ends meet. He asked that the location of the restaurant where he works not be published.

A medical reporter selling French fries, deep-fried chicken nuggets and Big Macs? Olsen points out that McDonalds also offers apples, smoothies and other healthy food. He praised the fast-food chain for allowing him to work a flexible schedule, but declined to say which is the more enlightened employer, GateHouse or the Golden Arches.

“I don’t think I want to answer that,” Olsen said. “I want to keep my jobs.”

Newsroom employees voted overwhelmingly to unionize in 2012. Since then, the company has tentatively agreed to resolve such non-economic issues as grievance procedures and matters of workplace safety, Olsen said, but GateHouse has held the line when it comes to raises.

“We’re getting toward the economic issues, and already we’re being told there’s no new money for you,” said Olsen. “We’ve been told continually that we’re profitable, and we’re posting some of the best advertising performance in the chain.”

As a company, GateHouse has struggled to post profits, but Olsen pointed out that the company that owns 78 daily newspapers and 235 weekly newspapers shed $1 billion in debt via bankruptcy last year and recently purchased the Providence Journal in Rhode Island for $46 million. Even as GateHouse spiraled into bankruptcy, the company awarded six-figure bonuses to top executives. Since bankruptcy, the stock for New Media Investment Group, GateHouse’s owner, has performed well, with shares trading at more than $16 per share this week after an initial offering at $10.35 per share in February.

Olsen said it’s a question of priorities.

“They’ve basically said there’s no money for us and they need their cash for other things,” Olsen said. “That is something we know is GateHouse’s business plan, to have no pay increases. Raises here could lead to demands at other properties for raises. I assume that’s part of their plan, to hold off (on raises) as long as possible. If we need to be the tip of the spear, we’ll be it.”

Olsen said that the union has collected signatures from more than 1,000 people on cards and sent them to publisher Clarissa Williams and Brad Dennison, a top GateHouse executive, urging the company to reach a fair contract with employees that includes raises.

“We’re going to be sending a lot more,” Olsen said. “We have talked to religious leaders in town, and they’ve been supportive. What actions they’re taking, we’d rather not say yet.”

Williams could not be reached for comment.

Olsen pointed out that the newsroom staff has shrunk considerably since GateHouse purchased the SJ-R in 2007. Employees who have left have either not been replaced or vacancies have been left open for long lengths of time. The newspaper no longer has an editorial cartoonist, an outdoors writer or a courthouse reporter. The entire copy desk, where headlines were written and stories given a final check before publication, was laid off in 2012, with duties being assigned to a centralized copy desk outside Springfield that also does copyediting for other GateHouse publications.

“We’ve seen a steady stream of people leave the newspaper,” Olsen said. “You can’t allow one of your most profitable, one of your most successful, entities to just wither on the vine.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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