The Paper's Trail

In Youngstown, Ohio, sympathy runs deep at the sight of a picket line. On this freezing Thursday, four pickets walk the morning shift outside the northeast Ohio newspaper The Vindicator. Striking employees seek warmth by huddling over rusted barrels stuffed with burning photo paper and donated lumber. Two makeshift shanties, decorated with Christmas bulbs and tinsel, block the icy wind. Passing vehicles honk their horns in support. "We have a lot of encouragement from the public here," says Tim Yovich, a Vindicator reporter on strike.

It's a scene that's as far removed from New Orleans – geographically, socially – as they come. But the two cities currently share a connection, at least in the newsrooms of their papers of record.The non-union Times-Picayune is reportedly leading the charge among a handful of newspapers owned by media conglomerate Newhouse News Service that are coming to the aid of Vindicator management. The papers are recruiting employees as temporary replacements for striking Vindicator staffers.

A T-P employee, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, says staff members were promised generous incentives to go up to Youngstown and cross the picket line. "[You would get] your pay here, plus at least the pay of the person you're replacing in Youngstown, plus travel and living expenses in Ohio," says the employee. "It's only rumor, but there's talk going around that a bonus would be paid as well. Certainly, doing a favor for Ashton (Phelps Jr., publisher of The Times-Picayune) is an intangible benefit." Four T-P staffers have gone to Youngstown, the employee says; three of those have returned, and two more are scheduled to leave.

Phelps did not respond to a Gambit Weekly request for comment and previously has declined comment to Youngstown's The Business Journal, which also is reporting this story. T-P executive editor Jim Amoss also declined comment: "I'm not interested in being interviewed, but thank you for your inquiry."

In Portland, Ore., a similar offer to go to Youngstown was made to the employees of the Newhouse-owned daily, The Oregonian – though as of press time, there were apparently no takers from there. Other Newhouse papers that reportedly sent staffers to Ohio were The Grand Rapids Press of Grand Rapids, Mich., and The Birmingham News and Mobile Register, both of Alabama. Vindicator general manager Mark Brown (who did not return calls for comment to Gambit Weekly) told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he had appealed to Newhouse and other media chains for help in supplying temporary workers. Newhouse responded, as did Media News Group, whose western Massachusetts newspaper The Berkshire Eagle sent at least two staffers.

What's notable about the support from large chains is that "the Vindy" is not owned by either Newhouse or any other chain – it's an independent, family-owned publication. Executives with Advance Publications Inc., the Newhouse subsidiary that owns the T-P and 25 other newspapers across the country, declined comment on its interest in the Youngstown work action.

Media critic Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "The New Media Monopoly," says the situation is not so surprising. "The larger publishers have a huge stake in keeping unions as weak as possible," Bagdikian says. "It's an old tradition of competing newspapers to help each other when one paper is knocked out by flood or hurricane. But in recent years they've added mutual aid to break and weaken unions."  

The Times-Picayune employee says that at the T-P, some staffers are puzzling over the offer. "There's a buzz in the newsroom on it, though it's a discreet buzz. No one really wants to be seen with the printouts from other newspapers covering the issue, though copies are being passed around. " Offers have been made through one-on-one discussions," the employee says.

"Why are we doing this? Rumor number one: Newhouses are friends of the family that owns The Vindicator, and the Newhouses are doing this as a favor," the employee says. "Rumor number two " the same (as number one), but with the hope that when the family decides to sell, they'll look to their friends first."

The 173 members of the Youngstown chapter of the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America, Local 34011, went on strike Nov. 16, primarily over health insurance and wage complaints. The union represents full- and part-time employees in the paper's editorial, circulation and classified departments. The paper charges that union members called a strike before the management made its final offer.

The walkout cleared the Vindy of nearly half its work force of about 400. Union members began publishing their own weekly strike paper, The Valley Voice, as a competitor. Efforts were soon underway to replace absent workers at The Vindicator.

The Institute on Political Journalism, a Washington, D.C.-based college internship program, sought interested candidates, according to an email supplied by Youngstown Newspaper Guild Vice President Debora Shaulis Flora. "I've just been told about a great print opportunity for those of you looking for work!" IPJ director Traci Leonardo wrote in the email. She outlined the Vindicator's compensation: $20 per hour, $75 per diem, hotel expenses and 30 cents per mile. "It's a great way to earn some extra cash and get your foot in the door," she wrote.

An advertisement also ran on the Web site, promising a pay rate of more than $1,000 per week. Shaulis Flora says site managers pulled the ad when they realized it sought to replace striking workers.

Oregonian employees learned of the offer through an email from executive editor Peter Bhatia. His memo – also provided to Gambit Weekly by Shaulis Flora – asked for volunteers to go to Youngstown. Bhatia promised Oregonian staffers that they would continue to receive their regular salary and benefits, in addition to compensation from the Vindicator. He also mentioned that "our sister paper in New Orleans" was supplying workers.

"I am sending this to you for two reasons," Bhatia wrote. "The publisher requested we do so. And because Sandy (Rowe, editor) and I both feel every newspaper should have the opportunity to publish every day." Shaulis Flora, who keeps a tally of Vindicator replacement workers and their home newspapers, says no Oregonian staffers have, to her knowledge, crossed the picket line.  

Newhouse's New Orleans newspaper apparently has been the most supportive of the Vindy. Times-Picayune managing editor Dan Shea has been in Youngstown for several days, according to sources in Youngstown, as well as the anonymous T-P employee. "Four people went up: Dan Shea, two managers and one non-manager," the employee says. "All are now back, except for Shea. Two more are scheduled to go up there; at least one of them is management."

Last week, a call to the T-P newsroom produced only the information that Shea was out of town for a couple of weeks. Contacted by email, Shea declined comment for this article.

Striking Vindy workers say the T-P managing editor has been a familiar sight at the picket line. "I've called him names I can't repeat," says Yovich, the Vindicator reporter, who says Shea has come outside at times to talk to picketers. "He wants to be nice and at the same time he's trying to get information. He should just go home."

Reporter Laure Cioffi says that she and a colleague approached Shea on a recent Saturday as he headed into the Vindicator building. "We said, 'We'd appreciate it if you'd honor our picket line,'" Cioffi says. "He said 'I'm a manager,' and we said we didn't care." He said, 'Publishers stick together just like unions do, and this paper has the right to publish. So we're just here helping out.' He did say something to the effect that, "I hope you wrap this up soon; I want to go home to my kids.''  

Reporter Pete Milliken says he has spoken to Shea twice at the picket line. "We didn't get into the Newhouse thing or anything," he says. "I asked him what his interest in this matter was, and why was he here? " He kind of led me to believe that it's a publishers' mutual aid society of sorts – that publishers help each other out just like unions help each other out.'

Shaulis Flora says The Vindicator's compensation for temporary workers – which is more generous than its pay rate for top-scale employees – has fueled conviction among union members that the paper can afford to meet the guild's terms, but is unwilling to do so. "They claim they have not been making money for the last seven years, but they are advertising for people to come work here for $20 an hour or more plus expenses plus lodging," she says, noting that top-scale workers make less than $18 per hour. "It's ridiculous."

Brown, The Vindicator's general manager, has stated that recruiting a temporary workforce is necessary for the paper's survival. "If we don't continue to put out a newspaper and remain viable, the union workers who are withholding their services won't have jobs to come back to," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week, adding that the paper has no intention of breaking the union.

The Vindicator has a circulation of about 70,000 daily and 100,000 on Sunday, and covers parts of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania. It has continued to publish since its employees went on strike, initially using many wire-service and syndicated news reports. Since the replacement workers started arriving, the paper has been running in-house news reports without bylines. The strike is the first against The Vindicator since an eight-month walkout in 1964.

Interactions between strikers and those crossing the picket line have so far been civil, say union members, but there remains an undercurrent of tension. "I can tell you one thing," says reporter Harold Gwin. "We don't appreciate scabs."

In his song, "Youngstown," Bruce Springsteen depicts the Mahoning Valley city of 84,000 as the epitome of the post-industrial Rust Belt. "Taconite, coke and limestone / Fed my children and made my pay," laments the song's destitute narrator.

Steel mills, once the lifeblood of Youngstown, shut down one by one in the late 1970s and early 1980s, putting the city and region in financial straits and giving rise to strong union sentiments. Locals have shown uncommon grit in the face of long labor disputes; recently, titanium producer RTI International Metals, in nearby Niles, Ohio, settled a work action with steelworkers after a 13-month lockout.

Substantial job loss over the years has taken its toll on the city, but the downtown area, where The Vindicator is located, is attracting government-oriented services and seems to be on a gradual upswing.

Inside the gates of the newspaper's parking lot along Front Street, a security guard wearing sunglasses stands vigil, hired by the company to prevent strikers from crossing onto Vindicator property.

Union members try to keep up their sense of humor despite the prospect of real hardship during the upcoming holiday season. Strikers huddle around the trash-barrel fires, fueled by donated wood; Tim Yovich distributes copies of the strike paper The Valley Voice to vehicles stopped at a nearby traffic light.

It's Dec. 9, the day after union members voted yet again to reject a Vindy contract – the paper's "best and final" offer, according to a Vindicator article. "Although The Vindicator has, for many years, faced a shrinking revenue base, increased competition for advertising dollars and operating losses, The Vindicator's final offer addressed the Guild's concerns," the article maintained.

Union concerns mainly included wage freezes at the Vindicator since 2000, which Shaulis Flora says guild members accepted "to help out this company, and for job security," she says. "After 9/11, the classified job marketing went through the floor; advertising was down; things were shaky. As hard as it was to swallow, we did it." Top-scale employees at The Vindicator make $17.82 an hour, while the lowest paid employees make $6.25 per hour, she says . "Of the 173 [union members], 93 are making less than $9 per hour," she says. "I don't know how people can live on wages like that, but we've got people who are trying to."  

The other big sticking point, Shaulis Flora says, is the company's health insurance plan. "The managers aren't contributing anything toward health-care premiums," she says, adding that The Vindicator maintains two health plans, one for the union workers and a separate, "better" plan for managers and non-guild members. "As many as 100 people are paying nothing toward health care. Now they want us to switch to a flat weekly fee from a percentage. They are only wanting part of the work force to bear that burden, and some of those in the lower part of the work force don't even get health benefits – which adds insult to injury."

The union was seeking annual wage increases of 35 cents per hour for workers in the top three classifications, and 50 cents per hour for those in lower classifications, over three years. It's also seeking a flat weekly health-care fee, borne by workers at all levels, to go toward a single companywide insurance plan.

Guild members voted 99 to 36, Shaulis Flora says, to reject the newspaper's Dec. 8 offer: a waiver of employees' health contribution for health insurance for four months, "to give them time to put everyone on the same plan," she says. "At that point we would have gone from a weekly flat fee to a percentage, which represents an increase in actual dollars from what everyone is paying now." Shaulis Flora says union officials predicted the rates would rise again when a new premium went into effect next spring.

The paper also offered a 4 percent wage increase over three years, she says; The Vindicator's article put the increase at 6 percent in wage increases and bonuses.

The Vindicator says it also offered an increase in the paper's contribution to employee dental plans and a one-time payment of $1,000 to circulation district managers. "The rejection is particularly disappointing since a Guild international union representative recommended ratification," the paper wrote. Shaulis Flora confirmed that the outside representative "thought this contract represented some sort of moral victory for the union," and that guild members disagreed.

Vindicator managers have maintained that the paper, too, has fallen on hard times and can ill afford the union's contract demands. "For The Vindicator to continue to provide good jobs, expenses simply must be reduced to meet the reality of a substantially smaller revenue base," publisher Betty Jagnow and general manager Mark Brown wrote in an open letter to readers shortly after the walkout. "All employees of The Vindicator – management and union – have endured a wage freeze for four years."

Union members are now receiving some compensation from the guild for picket shifts – "the holidays are not the best time of the year to go without a full paycheck," reporter Laure Cioffi notes – but they say they will stay the course despite the paper's assertion that the Dec. 8 contract proposal was its final offer. Shaulis Flora says she believes the paper will negotiate again.

"We didn't come into this thing blind," copy editor Jeremy Harper says. "We don't want to be out here, but we're prepared to be."

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