Philly newspaper union ready to go on strike

by Joe Strupp, Editor and Publisher

If Thursday night's deadline for a new guild contract at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News passes without a deal, resulting in a strike by the union's 900 members, guild leaders plan to produce their own online newspaper using striking staffers as reporters and editors.

"My expectation is we would cover everything the Inquirer and Daily News does now," said Stu Bykofsky, a Daily News staffer and guild spokesman. "I think our initial approach would be treating it like a newspaper and updating it throughout the day." He said the union had already purchased and registered a domain name, but declined to reveal the exact Web address. "Working on it could be an alternative to picket duty," he added. "It is still gelling right now."

Bykofsky and management spokesman Jay Devine said talks between the guild and the papers, currently being handled through a federal mediator, were going well. The guild spokesman said face-to-face negotiations between the two sides, without a mediator, could occur as early as today. "Our negotiators have been told to stand by," Bykofsky said. "Negotiations are moving forward."

Devine also showed optimism, saying "they are making progress and continue to make progress."

But the union also has been organizing all week to plan for the possibility of a strike, with some 600 members signing up for strike benefits last weekend and picketing locations being set.

Today, two union bulletins related to strike preparation were sent to members via e-mail. One reminded them to take any personal possessions they may need from their desks before the midnight Thursday deadline because they would not be allowed back in the building once a strike occurs. "We will keep you posted on our progress and give you advance warning if the union is preparing to call a strike," the bulletin stated. "Still it is prudent for many reasons to go ahead and take your stuff home."

The second bulletin reminded members not to cross picket lines or work as scabs if the papers seek to continue publishing. "People who cross the picket lines will be regarded as Benedict Arnolds and be ostracized," Bykofsky said.

Devine said the papers have not decided any course of action related to publishing during a strike, but called a report in the Philadelphia Weekly of an ad seeking temporary strike workers "ludicrous." "They are still focused on getting an agreement," he said of the papers ownership. "They haven't gone that far down the road yet."

Thursday marks the expiration of the guild's latest contract extension, the second such extension since the six-year guild agreement ended Aug. 31. The contract was first extended to Oct. 31, then to Nov. 30.

Union leaders have said they do not want another extension and expect to either sign a new agreement or walk out at the end of the day Thursday. The papers are owned by Philadelphia Media Holdings, which purchased them from The McClatchy Company last summer.

The guild is the largest of the newspapers' 10 unions, each of which face contract expirations on Thursday. The guild, which has been negotiating through a mediator since last month, voted to authorize a strike on Oct. 26.

The major disagreements at this point have been over management's request to cap the union pension, diminish the power of seniority in job security, and require five days of unpaid time off before sick pay kicks in.

The strike talk comes just weeks after Publisher Brian Tierney announced plans to cut as many as 150 editorial jobs. Those would come a year after more than 100 job were lost at both papers through a 2005 buyout.

The papers' last strike was a 46-day job action in 1985, Bykofsky said. He said about one-third of the current guild membership was involved in that walkout.

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