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Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016 12:07 am

Still no contract at SJ-R

PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

Negotiations between newsroom employees and management at the State Journal-Register have not borne fruit despite the aid of a federal mediator who has been called in to help the two sides reach agreement.

Shannon Duffy, administrative officer for the United Media Guild that represents about 25 newsroom workers, said that a Feb. 11 bargaining session resulted in no breakthroughs. It was the first session since union members last month unanimously rejected a contract offer that was billed as the company’s final and best offer (“Shove It,” Jan. 29).

According to the union, the company offer included $600 annual bonuses for the life of a three-year contract, but that was contingent on an open shop. The offer included no raises. Duffy said that a federal mediator has attended the last three or four bargaining sessions in an effort to reach a contract.

“We were unable to make any progress (on Feb. 11),” Duffy said. “We’re taking a break. We’re not on a countdown or anything like that. They did not impose (working) conditions; they did not declare an impasse.”

Employees haven’t received raises since GateHouse Media purchased the SJ-R in 2007. In 2011, GateHouse CEO Michael Reed promised raises, then said that the promised pay hikes were tied to profitability. The newsroom voted 26-4 to unionize in the fall of 2012, months after employees learned they wouldn’t be getting salary hikes.

While SJ-R employees have gone without raises, executives with GateHouse and New Media Investment Group, GateHouse’s holding company, have seen significant pay increases. Reed’s annual bonus, paid on top of a $500,000 salary, jumped from $500,000 in 2010 to $750,000 in 2011 to $800,000 in 2012, according to reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He is now CEO for New Media, but his current pay isn’t listed in SEC documents. SEC reports show that Kirk Davis, GateHouse’s current CEO, has seen his salary, bonuses and other compensation increase from $830,628 in 2012, when he was GateHouse’s chief operating officer, to $917,930 in 2014, the most recent year for which salary information is available. Davis’ compensation package dipped to $607,800 in 2013, the year that GateHouse declared bankruptcy.

At the SJ-R, some newsroom employees receive less than $15 an hour, Duffy said. Union officials say that the company has proposed a minimum salary of $13 an hour for full-time newsroom employees and $11 an hour for part-time workers.

“It’s asinine,” Duffy said. “They routinely say things like ‘If they (employees) don’t like it, they can leave.’ Unfortunately, that’s been happening at the SJ-R.”

Duffy cited former SJ-R education reporter Molly Beck, who now works for the Wisconsin State Journal, and former SJ-R general assignment reporter Maggie Menderski, who last year took a job with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida, which is also owned by GateHouse, as examples of writers who have voluntarily left the Springfield daily. According to a staff listing on the SJ-R’s website, the newsroom has 28 employees, including managers. In 2012, the paper had 53 employees, including a dozen copy editors who wrote headlines and proofread stories, according to the paper’s website at the time. Most of the copy editors were fired four years ago when the SJ-R shut down its copy desk and moved copyediting work first to the Chicago area, then to Texas. The author of this story is a former SJ-R writer who joined Illinois Times in 2011.

Duffy said that the union has lowered its financial demands. When negotiations began, he said that the union asked for the same compensation package in place at the Peoria Journal-Star, which would have cost GateHouse $1 million over the life of a three-year contract. The union last month dropped demands for wage hikes in favor of bonuses based on longevity, which would have cost the company $292,000 over three years, Duffy said. Last week, he said, the union again lowered its demand to a point that would have cost GateHouse about $250,000 over three years. The union’s proposal included a minimum salary of $17 an hour, he said, but the company didn’t make a counteroffer, and the union didn’t come up with a different proposal.

“To be honest, we were not interested in negotiating with ourselves,” Duffy said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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