By Neil Cosgrove
Confronted with an unfavorable National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that Block Communication, Inc. has violated labor law by refusing to pay a 5% increase in health insurance premiums for 150 members of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the owners of the Post-Gazette have decided to continue on a familiar, but unfortunate path. They will appeal the ruling to an administrative judge, enriching a union-busting law firm rather than supporting their own employees.
It’s a strategy similar to that Duquesne University has followed for the past several years, filing numerous appeals of NLRB orders that call for the school to bargain with its recognized adjunct faculty union, expending substantial funds on legal representation rather than on paying a living wage to struggling professionals, hoping, perhaps, that a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court will someday relieve the institution of pesky obligations to the people who work every day to fulfill its proclaimed educational mission.
And it’s the same tactic it appears Penn State and Pitt will be pursuing as they seek to postpone or prevent union organizing by graduate students as well as, in Pitt’s case, adjunct, tenure-track, and tenured faculty.
Back in January, the union representing the Post-Gazette’s reporters, photographers, print and web editors, and graphic artists filed an Unfair Labor Practices complaint with the NLRB, arguing that Block’s refusal to pay an April 1 increase in employee health premiums clearly violated a requirement that “companies involved in bargaining [must] maintain the same level of wages and benefits of expired contracts.” Block’s contract with the Guild, and other of the newspaper’s unions, expired more than a year ago. The regional director of the NLRB agreed with the Guild in March, but within the same week Richard Lowe of the Nashville, TN law firm representing Block in contract negotiations announced the paper would appeal the NLRB finding, and said he was prepared to take such appeals up to the NLRB national office in Washington, DC. The appeals have “no downside for him [i.e. Lowe],” the Guild commented drily. “In fact, it serves to continue to line his pockets and fleece Block…”
Block Communications will claim they have to significantly change their contract with the Post-Gazette journalists in order for the paper to make money once again, while Duquesne makes spurious arguments about their “Spiritan tradition” somehow preventing them from negotiating with an adjunct faculty union. But the most salient fact to note is that both entities are spending significant amounts of money to combat unions, money that would be better spent on adequately compensating their highly skilled and motivated employees. So maybe it isn’t really about the money, but about a deep-seated animosity towards unions and collective bargaining.
What is the source of such animosity? Maybe owners and university administrators have convinced themselves that collective bargaining will detract from their own power and influence. Maybe they are reluctant to admit that journalists and faculty members are the true engines of their enterprise. Maybe they are so short-sighted that they fail to realize these producers, especially when organized, also ensure the productivity and stability of their enterprises. Poorly compensating educators has not resulted in happily successful, highly valued schools. Instead, where weakened teacher unions and poor pay are the norm, the result in the past few months, in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, has been schools closed by wildcat strikes. If good faith bargaining doesn’t take place internally, then bargaining will occur in the streets.
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh has said there will be “consequences” resulting from Block’s decision to ignore labor law, and to further gouge journalists who have been making concessions on wages, benefits, and staffing for the past dozen years. Whatever work actions the Post-Gazette journalists choose to take should be supported by organizations and individuals dedicated to social and economic justice.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of The NewPeople Editorial Collective and the Merton Center board.