Union battle may impact sale of Blethen Maine papers

by Joe Strupp, Editor and Publisher

Before Frank Blethen can sell his four-daily Blethen Maine Newspaper group, he may have to quell a growing labor problem at one of the foursome's smallest papers.

The 19,000-daily circulation Morning Sentinel in Waterville has quietly been harboring a growing union fight that has included a five-month byline strike, a statewide labor petition supporting the guild and, this week, word that the newspaper is threatening to pull recognition of the union.

"We were quite surprised when negotiations came to a standstill on April 15," said Darla Pickett, unit chair for the Waterville unit of the Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents about 20 staffers. "We had been discussing another way we might get together and they came back with their last, best and final offer."

Three days later, she said, the union received a registered letter that stated: "it is the intention of Blethen Maine Inc. to terminate the collective bargaining agreement between the Waterville unit ... and Blethen Maine Newspapers."

Frank Blethen, CEO of The Seattle Times Company that includes the Maine group, could not be reached for comment Monday morning.

Morning Sentinel President John Christie, in a statement to E&P Monday, wrote in part: "The current contract, which is still in effect, anticipates the possibility that at some point the parties cannot agree on a new contract. In the event, we are allowed to notify the Guild of our intent to terminate the contract. A letter to that effect was sent to the Guild on April 18. However, there is time between now and June 1 to reach an agreement. A bargaining session has been scheduled for May 7. At that time, we hope the Guild will recognize that, given the state of the newspaper industry, our offer is reasonable and fair."

Pickett said her members have been working without a contract since January 2006, and with no raises since early 2005.

"We have been at this for so long, we have been trying to get their attention," she said about the reason for the byline strike, which began in December. She said the union has yet to file any complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

"The company’s demands for the right to outsource jobs, changes to reduce paid sick time, the right to transfer employees unilaterally to other Blethen Maine enterprises, and a limited wage proposal are the main points of disagreement," a guild release stated.

Guild leaders, in a statement issued Monday, added that they "will soon begin contacting advertisers and running advertisements calling public attention to our plight. We are not asking for much -- reasonable pay for a good day's work without fear of outsourced jobs and diminished benefits."

Adding to the dispute is a petition launched by the Portland Newspaper Guild that calls on support for the Waterville unit. Among its signers is one Dale Blethen, a cousin to Frank Blethen and a chief steward for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1837.

The petition can be found at www.local128.org.

“Enough is enough,” Maine AFL-CIO President Ed Gorham said in a recent statement. “It’s time for the long simmering negotiations to be finished and for the management to start acting responsibly.”

The labor battle comes as The Seattle Times Company is seeking to sell the Waterville paper and the company's three other Maine dailies, The Portland Press-Herald, the Maine Sunday Telegram, also of Portland, and The Kennebec Journal in Augusta.

Pickett said the guild fight is a surprise given that similar units at the company's other three Maine papers have successfully reached contract agreements in recent years. "We hoped they could go along with us," she said.

In a related move, Portland Newspaper Guild members have launched an effort in recent weeks to buy the newspaper group from Blethen, but no progress has been reported on that effort.

The union has launched a Web site as part of the purchase initiative, at
http://www.yourhometownpaper.org.

article originally published at http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=....

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