News & Politics » Media

Strike Accord at the Tribune; Is the Sun-Times Next?

by

comment

Strike Accord at the Tribune

Now that you've come to terms with the Tribune, we asked Augie Sallas, president of the Chicago Typographical Union, do you think the settlement is good enough to justify the extra year your people spent without one?

"Yes," said Sallas. "Because what we have now is a union shop. And before they wanted us to represent scabs and we didn't want that."

Any way you look at it, the new deal is better than the one that federal mediator W.J. Usery thought he had cut in October of '87. For the 120-some printers with lifetime contracts who hit the bricks 40 months ago, didn't return to work, and never will, the Tribune will provide annuities from a fund of $8.56 million, up from $ 7.8 million in the '87 proposal. For the four dozen remaining CTU printers (of an original 63) who were accepted back at reduced wages in February of '86, when the printers called off their strike, wages and benefits will be fattened to equal the package at the Sun-Times. Any of those printers who is willing to accept a $30,000 cash buy out will now retain medical benefits until he's 65. (He'll be replaced, if he's replaced at all, by a "typographical associate" paid much less money to do the dwindling amount of makeup and pasteup work that everyone acknowledges is obsolete.)

The new balance of management and workers' rights, while still skewed in favor of management, is no longer lopsided to the point of insult. As Sallas immediately said, the 130 scabs who so easily replaced the striking printers in '85 won't be foisted upon the union--to degrade it and possibly decertify it.

And the new contract, once ratified by both sides, will last three years. The '87 agreement--which like the present one would have required dropping the various CTU lawsuits against the Tribune--would have run out after one year.

So it's been a useful year. But it's been a bitter one.

A year ago, Dave Donovan was the president of the CTU, and virtually the only union leader to speak in support of Usery's '87 terms. "I'm trying to lead and they're not listening to the call," Donovan lamented after that deal went down by a smashing five-to-one margin. Like federal judge Marvin Aspen, who had brought Usery in, Donovan feared that his union's breach-of-contract suits against the Tribune would drag on in court for another five years and his printers might end up with nothing.

But why should the printers have listened to Donovan? He'd never involved himself in the Tribune negotiations, leaving those to his vice president, Steve Berman. Berman didn't like the '87 deal. And Paul Lehrer, a Sun-Times printer who was chairman of the union's newspaper scale committee, outspokenly opposed it.

Last June, Donovan ran for reelection and Augie Sallas beat him. In a union with its own political parties, Sallas ran as an independent, challenging not just the incumbent but the negotiating process. "The union belongs to the membership," he said afterward. "It doesn't belong to these two or three guys who don't report out. . . . These guys, I'm beating them back. I just won't be intimidated by these guys." He wanted a settlement with the Tribune, and he didn't trust Berman and Lehrer alone to get one.

Sallas had always considered the Tribune strike wrongheaded. In 1985, when the juices were running, Sallas advised against walking out. He didn't think the Tribune's alleged violation of the lifetime contracts--they shifted printers to jobs in other areas--was worth striking over.

"I cautioned them not to go out," Sallas remembers. "I was a victim of a labor dispute myself. I said if you go out you'll never get back in unless you have a commitment from the Teamsters."

Which they didn't.

In 1973, Sallas had been one of 113 printers locked out of the Hammond Times. "We never went back to work there," says Sallas. "It burns in my mind. I had six kids at the time. My wife had food stamps and my daughter worked at Dunkin' Donuts. And that's what we lived on."

In 1985, Donovan had defeated Sallas for president of the CTU; and on July 18 he entered the Tribune print shop and said "It's time." The men went out, and Sallas watched history repeat itself.

"It's a tragedy what happened," says Sallas.

Determined to end the damn thing, Sallas took over Berman's negotiating authority and Lehrer's scale committee after being elected president last June. But the union's real point man this past year has been Morton Bahr, Washington-based president of the CTU's parent union, the Communication Workers of America (CWA).

The CTU laid out its needs to Bahr, who then dealt with Usery and with Tribune attorneys from King & Ballow, a Nashville firm whose union-busting reputation equals any in the country.

Early this past September, Bahr sent the CWA's general counsel to Chicago with a proposed contract that he thought accommodated all the CTU's desires. Bahr was wrong; the scale committee turned it down by a vote of five to one, Augie Sallas voting with Berman and Lehrer to reject it. Bahr had inherited the Chicago mess when the CWA absorbed the typographers in 1987. The CTU had exasperated him by rejecting what Bahr thought were decent terms at the end of '87. Now he got fed up.

Bahr fired off a letter to Sallas, acknowledging the new contract's imperfections but adding that after "a review of my participation for one and one half years to try to end the tragedy at the Chicago Tribune, I have concluded that two members of the Committee have had a separate agenda."

These two unnamed members were clearly Berman and Lehrer.

"At no time has there been primary concern shown for those who have not had a paycheck for more than three years and others who are working without a contract and losing $ 129 [actually, $155 ] a week in wages for months. Every single concern by these two individuals has been to continue to throw these good members to the wolves in an effort to avoid a possible fight with the Sun Times management. . . .

"To continue the suffering of the members and their families at the Tribune under these circumstances is unconscionable . . ."

This was an astonishing accusation (which Sallas, in his reply, did not dispute). "You have attacked my honor," Berman wrote Bahr.

Was the accusation fair? No. We believe that Berman and Lehrer, as well as Sallas, are honorable men. But Bahr's outburst is a measure of the frustration and bitterness planted by the Tribune experience. What Bahr meant by the "possible fight with the Sun Times management" was something that Lehrer, who worked there, had understandably worried about all along. Under the "favored nations contracts" the Chicago papers have with their trades, any labor concession that either paper wins can immediately be adopted by the other.

It's a detail whose importance Bahr, in Washington, might have found it hard to appreciate. To Berman and Lehrer in Chicago, cutting the CTU's losses with the Tribune didn't warrant undermining the union's other contracts. Berman says, "We told Usery in March '86 that we would not settle the Tribune at the cost of losing the Sun-Times."

Despite Bahr's letter--or, who knows, maybe because of it--everyone stayed in line. This fall, negotiating through Usery, the CTU and King & Ballow came up with some new language that everyone could live with; and last Thursday Usery, Bahr, and a delegation from King & Ballow converged on Tribune Tower to dot the last i's and cross the final t's with the union's lawyers. This session, befitting the 40-month morass, wore on from 2 in the afternoon to 4:30 the next morning.

Burned once when the CTU dumped the deal the Tribune thought had been made a year ago, Tribune president Charles Brumback won't formally embrace the new agreement until the union ratifies it. That should happen at a union meeting November 20--when the contract is submitted with the leadership's unanimous endorsement.

Then the Sun-Times gets its turn. The CTU contract there expires in mid-January. Augie Sallas has written the Sun-Times twice: first asking for dates to begin negotiations, again to propose dates of his own.

The Sun-Times hasn't responded to either letter.

Is the Sun-Times Next?

We told Augie Sallas how ready Sun-Times editorial employees are to go out, and he winced. "They should work from inside," an elderly printer alongside him said, shaking his head.

They may not be working inside much longer. The Sun-Times has accepted the Chicago Newspaper Guild's call for mediation, which can be a means either of avoiding a strike or of qualifying morally to call one.

Mediation is expected to begin next week, in an atmosphere of maximum urgency. Last Monday, the Guild negotiators scheduled the strike to begin on November 21.

Everyone seems to be fed up. A reporter we don't know called on an impulse--we could hear the traffic in the background--to let off steam. Not just about negotiations, about the 7 percent pay cut management wants Guild members to eat. About dumb assignments like this one the reporter was on right now. About the lack of leadership. Everything. Somebody else we don't know sent us a letter, and when we called to talk told us, "The company hasn't handled these negotiations any better than anything else, which is to our advantage but scary. If they'd come in with a 0 percent offer or 1 percent or 1.5 percent and said 'Hey, we're not doing that well; we have to suck it up and make it a better paper,' people were ready for that. But instead they come in and say 'Fuck you!"'

We think hardly anyone at the Sun-Times really wants to hit the bricks. Reporters we know are willing to believe the paper's not healthy, even if management won't produce its books. The staff has seen the new circulation figures--down 25,590 a day--and they know what those figures mean. But estrangement from authority runs deep and wide at the Sun-Times, all the way from Leonard Shaykin's desk in New York to the city desk that makes so many dumb assignments.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment