Union cuts the cord on Two-Newspaper Seattle committee

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by Eric Pryne, Seattle Times

Members of the largest union at Seattle's two daily newspapers reversed course Saturday and voted to cut ties with a citizens' committee that is fighting both newspapers in court.

The 70-38 vote by members of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild is a significant financial blow to the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, and it raises questions about its future.

The committee says it speaks for readers and employees in the three-year-old legal dispute between The Seattle Times Co. and The Hearst Corp., owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

More than 80 percent of the committee's money has come from the Guild, which represents news, advertising, circulation, marketing and composing workers at the two papers.

After a big victory in court 10 days ago, the committee said it expected to actively pursue its claims against both papers. But co-chair Anne Bremner said the group needed to raise more money first.

Bremner said after the vote that, although losing the Guild's backing is disappointing, "We're not going anywhere. We're just going forward."

The committee now will appeal to the community for money. "Seattle is a city of philanthropists. ... I'm optimistic, given that I've heard nothing but support for this cause," Bremner said.

Times reporter Steve Miletich, the Guild's vice president, introduced the resolution to sever ties. He argued that the committee's "legal gamesmanship" was harming the interests of Guild members and threatening to undermine the newspapers' efforts to settle their differences through binding arbitration.

Two previous bids by Miletich and other Times employees to dissociate the Guild from the committee had failed. After Saturday's vote, Miletich said he hoped the committee would drop its claims and focus instead on helping employees at both papers in the event one closes.

But P-I restaurant critic Rebekah Denn, visibly upset after the balloting, said she was ashamed of the Guild.

"How can a committee that's trying to work for two newspapers not have our interests at heart?" she said. "... What I saw was personal interests over the public good, and I hate that."

The Times and P-I have been bound since 1983 by a federally sanctioned joint-operating agreement (JOA). The Times handles advertising, circulation and production for both papers, but each maintains separate news and editorial operations. The Times gets 60 percent, Hearst 40 percent of what's left after the non-news expenses of producing both newspapers are paid.

The locally owned Times moved in April 2003 to trigger an escape clause in the JOA contract that could lead to termination of the agreement, closure of the P-I or both. It said the cost of producing the P-I had become a financial burden that threatened The Times' future.

New York-based Hearst, which maintains the smaller P-I can't survive outside the JOA, filed a lawsuit challenging The Times' move.

The Guild played a central role in organizing the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, which was allowed to intervene in the lawsuit in July 2003. It has sided with Hearst in most legal proceedings so far, but also has filed a claim against both companies.

That claim contends a provision of the JOA that guarantees Hearst 32 percent of The Times' profits until 2083 if it voluntarily closes the P-I is an unconstitutional restraint of trade.

The Times and Hearst announced in late March that they had agreed to submit their dispute to binding arbitration, with no appeal. They also said they didn't want the committee involved, and that the group's claims could be litigated later.

They asked King County Superior Court Judge Greg Canova to put all legal proceedings on hold until after the arbitration concludes next year. But the committee said such a freeze could damage its interests irreparably, and on April 27 Canova agreed.

The Times-Hearst arbitration deal allowed either newspaper to pull out within 30 days if Canova didn't freeze all legal proceedings. Neither has said yet what it will do.

Canova's ruling prompted a backlash against the committee among some Times Guild members, and led directly to Saturday's vote. In an e-mail to Guild members last week, Miletich said that "arbitration offers the best solution to ending the JOA dispute for all parties.

"The Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town is jeopardizing that process through legal gamesmanship that has taken it far beyond what it was originally intended to do," he added.

Some Times employees argued it's inevitable that one paper will close, and expressed fear that the committee's legal strategy could result in sale of The Times to Hearst. Others said the committee's restraint-of-trade claim, if successful, could kill The Times by negating a 1999 amendment to the JOA that allowed The Times to switch from afternoon to morning publication.

Members who attended Saturday's closed-door union meeting said most Times employees in attendance voted to cut ties with the committee, while most P-I employees voted to continue support. As in past votes, only a small fraction of the roughly 780 Guild members at the two papers chose to participate.

P-I reporter Larry Lange, who opposed Miletich's motion, said he expects many Guild members will continue to support the committee as individuals. Some production and circulation workers at The Times could lose their jobs if the P-I closes, he said.

Guild Secretary Don Kirkpatrick, a Times desk editor, circulated an unsuccessful compromise resolution to sidestep a showdown by requiring membership approval of any additional contributions to the two-newspaper committee.

But members did approve his proposal to ask union negotiators in upcoming contract talks to work to add language requiring that, in the event one newspaper closes, the survivor hire some of the closing paper's employees.

Times spokeswoman Jill Mackie said the company was pleased that Guild members "recognized [the committee's] litigation is a threat to them and to local ownership of The Seattle Times."

The vote won't affect The Times' decision on whether to continue to pursue binding arbitration, she said.

A Hearst spokesman declined comment.

Liz Brown, the Guild's administrative officer, has been the two-newspaper committee's treasurer, and sits on its board. After the vote, she said it's unlikely she can continue in those roles.

She said last week that the local Guild and its parent national union have provided $31,000 of the approximately $37,500 the committee has raised since 2003. It has just $4,000 in the bank now, Brown added.

Saturday's vote also raises questions about whether Seattle attorney Dmitri Iglitzin can continue to represent the committee, because he also represents the Guild.

"The Guild and the committee have two different positions here," Miletich said.

But Iglitzin said he's not certain there's a conflict. He said he would speak with both clients before making a decision.

Bremner said the committee may ask other lawyers to volunteer their time.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us," she said.

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