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With a breakthrough looming, Times blows up talks with Guild

07/17/2012

With a possible breakthrough looming after nearly a year and a half of negotiations, Times corporate management inexplicably dropped a bomb on the process today by presenting two new comprehensive proposals aimed at negotiating two separate contracts: print and digital.

NEGOTIATIONS UPDATE

The hostile move, which would undo months of incremental progress toward a unified contract, came after Guild negotiators proposed an innovative pension plan on June 26 that would address management's concern about risk, volatility and costs – issues involving the current pension plan that company negotiators have repeatedly called the centerpiece of the talks.

“Given the progress that we’ve made and the very real prospect of resolving the pension issue, we could have settled these negotiations to the satisfaction of both sides by September,” said New York Guild President Bill O’Meara. “Instead, what management has done will depress members’ flagging morale even further with the Summer Olympics, the heat of the election season and a presidential vote all looming.”

By demanding to negotiate two separate contracts, management may have invalidated all the work previously done in subcommittee over nearly 17 months, including tentative agreements on job descriptions, the workweek, casual and temporary workers – in total, 21 contractual issues that had seemingly been settled. It also means that the Guild may have to set up a separate negotiating committee for a new digital-only contract. This wrench in the proceedings came after the company negotiators blamed the Guild for lack of progress earlier in the talks.

In a transparent effort to sugarcoat its hostile move, management also presented the Guild with its long-promised counterproposal to the Guild’s proposal for a profit-sharing plan. The management version would award bonuses of up to 2 percent of annual base pay, based on financial targets for the company’s Media Group that are unverifiable but, according to management, are identical to those used for its own plan. The Guild is reviewing the proposal and plans to request information in connection with it. 

PRESERVING AN “IMPASSE” OPTION
Management's dual-contract demand apparently is a legal maneuver to preserve its option to declare the talks at “impasse” – a rarely used draconian move that would enable management to impose its “last, best” contract offer on members. At this point, that would include a pension freeze, a longer workweek, imperiling the health and benefits plan with a lack of funding and a change for the worse in any number of work rules.

“Let’s be clear,” O’Meara told management negotiators. “What you’re really trying to do is set us up so that you can go to impasse on us.”

If impasse is declared, the Guild would challenge the move at the National Labor Relations Board. A strike authorization vote, members' only other recourse, is another option.

Ironically, with its proposal for separate contracts, management is stepping away from the goal its own negotiators articulated at the outset of contract talks for a unified agreement that covers for all Guild-represented employees.

Print and digital functions within the newsroom have been almost completely integrated, a practice the Guild has allowed without filing grievances because of its belief that both sides were working toward one contract. That acceptance on the part of the Guild will change immediately, and multiple grievances will be filed regarding digital employees doing the work of members under the print contract.

GUILD HAD SOUGHT SOLUTION FOR COMPANY’S PROBLEM
Ever since Times negotiators identified the current pension plan as the linchpin of contract talks, the Guild has searched for alternatives that would address their concerns about risk, volatility and costs while still preserving a defined monthly benefit for life for employees.

The best path to that goal, actuaries have assured the Guild, is the Adjustable Pension Plan (APP) that the Guild proposed last month.

The APP would give the company virtually the same relief from its current risk of runaway retiree costs that it would get under its proposal to freeze the pension plan and replace it with modest contributions to employee 401(k) accounts. Unlike management’s proposal, however, the Guild’s alternative would still provide each retiree with a monthly payment for life and would still be federally guaranteed. 

The plan received positive signals from IRS and Treasury officials in Washington at a June meeting with Guild and Times management representatives. But it would still need official approval from the Internal Revenue Service before it could be implemented.

Times negotiators have yet to officially respond to the Guild’s pension alternative, but they did agree on Monday to split the $20,000 cost of having actuaries prepare the documentation that would be submitted to the IRS in an effort to gain approval, a sign that even they think the APP may resolve the pension issue.

The Guild plans to hold a series of informational meetings on the APP in coming weeks.

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