At The Buffalo News, a clash between an 87-year-old union and a new business owner

The workers at The Buffalo News have been represented by a union for almost a century and are very familiar with the collective bargaining process. But the current round of contract negotiations is unlike any in recent memory, union leaders say.

The Buffalo Newspaper Guild, which represents about 150 newspaper workers, is negotiating its first contract with owner Lee Enterprises since February. Meanwhile, the company made proposals that the union said would devastate the newspaper, its workers and its readers.

Three proposals in particular have raised concerns. The first calls for the outsourcing of the tasks of the newspaper’s editors, page designers, customer service representatives and accounting departments. In total, more than twenty people would be affected. The second proposal allows the company to dismiss workers without justification. The third is to freeze unionized pension plans even if the current plan is over-funded.

The company’s stance during negotiations prompted the union to organize a public opinion strike, removing their names from articles and photos in the newspaper. The union is also circulating a petition which collected more than 1,400 signatures, and he requested the support of more than 20 local elected officials.

Lee Enterprises spokesman Charles Arms declined to comment for this story.

Bitter contract negotiations are not unusual. Unions at Condé Nast The New Yorker, Pitchfork and Ars Technica made headlines in March when they voted to allow a strike on the duration of negotiations. Likewise, the Ziff Davis Creators Guild – which represents journalists from AskMen, Geek, Mashable and PCMag – held a strike authorization vote in May after more than two years of negotiations.

But what makes the situation different to The Buffalo News is that the conflict follows a period of relative “labor peace” in which local management and workers understood they had to cooperate for the good. from Journal.

Before Lee acquired The Buffalo News in January 2020, he was owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Meanwhile, local management had considerable leeway in how they ran the newspaper. Buffett went on to create the BH Media Group newspaper chain, which included titles like the Omaha World-Herald, Tulsa World, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but these newspapers did not have as much autonomy as News.

In contract negotiations before 2020, the union negotiated directly with local management, not with company representatives from Berkshire Hathaway. Everyone in the room had an interest in negotiating in good faith and doing what was best for the paper, said Henry Davis, a former News reporter who served as president of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild from 2010 to 2016.

“You deal with people you have a daily relationship with, who you could have coffee with, or who you could go to lunch with,” Davis said. “For many years, if you all make an effort to maintain and improve these kinds of relationships, it has an effect when you start to negotiate. There is a level of trust that you can build.

Local managers were familiar with the Buffalo community and the needs of the newspaper, Davis said. Although there were occasional “deep disagreements” which led to “aggressive mobilization campaigns,” the newspaper’s management was willing to be transparent with and work with the union.

Meanwhile, Berkshire Hathaway rarely got involved. Current Buffalo Newspaper Guild President Sandra Tan said she couldn’t recall a single bargaining session in which a representative from the company was in the room. It was just local management. Depending on the issue at hand, The Buffalo News occasionally consulted with the company, but local management largely retained the ability to make their own deals.

Now the union is negotiating with representatives from Lee, headquartered in Davenport, Iowa. Astrid Garcia, vice president of human and legal resources at Lee Enterprises, has participated in every negotiating session since February, Tan said.

Another factor that makes the Buffalo Newspaper Guild unique is its age. Unlike other unions who are now negotiating their first contracts, The Buffalo News union has been around since the 1930s. Through decades of negotiations, it has secured strong contractual protections for its workers.

Lee’s proposals would remove these protections.

“I think Lee would recognize that if you try to get concessions from a union like ours, you don’t expect to do away with everything we have spent decades fighting for overnight,” said Tan. “I don’t think they understand at all the reality of getting a membership in a guild like ours to support these kinds of really destructive proposals.”

Lee has so far presented more than two dozen proposals. That’s an unusually high amount, Tan said, especially given the seriousness of the proposals. In the past, if local management made two dozen proposals, they were relatively minor. The pension freeze proposal, for example, would have been a topic important enough to be discussed on its own.

These proposals would also negatively affect the community, according to the union. Outsourcing the newspaper’s design work to out-of-state centers would increase lead times and give the newspaper less flexibility to cover milestone events. Readers may notice more errors in the paper or have a less satisfying customer service experience after outsourcing editing and customer service work.

“Our community deserves a paper produced by the local people,” said Tan. “This will have real consequences for everyone who reads our newspaper and has come to rely on it as a source of information.”

The union’s current contract is due to expire at the end of this month. In the past, the union sometimes had to negotiate with management after the contract expired, but it was always understood that both parties were determined to find a solution, Tan said. Now there is a “sense of foreboding” and pressure to ratify a new contract before the current one expires.

The seriousness of the proposals prompted the guild to launch an indefinite strike. They also asked for the support of local elected officials, which they have never done before.

“In the past, we would never have reached out to elected leaders to ask them to support us as many of us in the newsroom consider it a conflict of interest as they are people. that we cover, ”Tan said. “But given the gravity of the proposals they put forward this time around, the guild management team decided if there was a time when we needed the support of the leaders of the public community, it was was now. “

The ongoing dispute leaves the future of the union’s relationship with Lee uncertain, but Phil Fairbanks, former president of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild and current member of the union’s executive committee, said he was optimistic.

“I hope that once we complete this initial first round of negotiations, they will realize that we are not the enemy, that we can be a partner,” Fairbanks said. “We have had many instances where we have been involved in confrontational negotiations under Buffett, but in the end we are still able to come to a resolution that is beneficial to both parties.”

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