Projo union may offer concessions to avoid newspaper layoffs

By Ted Nesi

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence Journal’s largest union says it may consider offering contract concessions such as temporary pay cuts in order to avoid layoffs if too few employees accept the voluntary buyout offer put forward last week.

In a letter sent Friday, the Providence Newspaper Guild asked Journal management for a chance to discuss other ways of saving money before the company moves forward with layoffs. Employees must volunteer to take the buyout by Monday and have been warned layoffs could follow if too few accept it.

Guild president John Hill acknowledged it would be new territory for his union to reopen a contract that was already ratified, and he emphasized that no offers can be made until he formally surveys his roughly 220 members to see what they would be willing to accept.

“We want to see if there’s something we can do,” Hill told Journal management has indicated that it won’t be able to respond to the Guild with specifics until the first week of October, he said. The union would need to vote to approve any deal on concessions.

Hill described the mood in the newsroom as “tense and anxious” with a few days left before Monday afternoon’s deadline to volunteer to leave with a buyout. “The people who are most vulnerable [to layoffs] are some of our best – we’re going to build a future on these guys,” he said. “We’ll lose the seed corn if this goes through.”

“Everybody’s worried,” he said. “If you’re not in trouble, you’ve got a friend who is.” He declined to speculate about how many of his colleagues will agree to take the buyout but said he expects to know by the end of the day Monday. Their last days of work will be Sept. 30.

The union will spend the next few weeks discussing what – if any – concessions its members will propose. Hill expressed frustration that Journal management hasn’t given him a specific dollar amount of savings to target. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” he said.

Hill noted that the Journal’s union is the only Newspaper Guild local in New England where workers haven’t taken a pay cut since 2008. “We dodged that then,” he said, though other cuts were made. Furloughs and temporary pay cuts “are the obvious places where you can get the most bang for your buck, but again, that will be up to the membership.”

Separately, Journal owner A.H. Belo announced Friday the company will pay shareholders a special one-time cash dividend in December and launch a program to buy back up to 1 million shares of company stock.

“Despite pension funding requirements and various business challenges, the company has consistently generated cash,” A.H. Belo CEO Robert Decherd said in a statement. “As a result, we are able to distribute additional cash to shareholders.”

Hill said he didn’t see those moves as a positive sign locally. “All I can tell you is I know what our ad reps are telling us, and here it ain’t good,” he said. “You only have to pick up the paper and feel the thickness of it to know that.” He expressed confidence that the economy will pick up over the next year.

The Providence Newspaper Guild has about 220 members in the newspaper’s editorial, advertising, maintenance and production departments, Hill said. The pressroom has its own union and circulation workers are contractors, he said. The Journal’s work force has shrunk by a third to 468 employees since 2008.

“No proposals have been proposed, no commitments have been made,” Hill said in a separate statement. “But we felt, with so many of our members worried about either their own jobs or the future viability of The Journal itself, it was crucial that we get it on the record that we need to be heard from before anything is decided.”

• Related: Union: Providence Journal plans more staff cuts this month (Sept. 7)

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