By: Neil Cosgrove
The lengthy struggle to preserve a viable daily newspaper in the Pittsburgh region continues, with the paper’s unions seeking fair contracts to replace and improve upon those that expired nearly three years ago.
Meanwhile the Post-Gazette’s owners, Block Communications, would rather spend millions they could dedicate to those contracts on a union-busting law firm from Tennessee. It’s not like King and Ballow are providing Block with legal victories. Most recently, an arbitrator handed down a “final and binding” ruling that the Post-Gazette must retroactively pay for editorial staff health insurance benefits mandated by the contract that expired March 31, 2017. The paper had refused to pay for premium increases that began in April, 2018.
Then, on January 9th, a federal district judge ordered a hearing for early March into whether the Post-Gazette is in contempt of court for refusing to comply with the judge’s November order that Block reinstate laid-off circulation and delivery employees, and restore the health care for employees reduced to part-time status, as their existing contract requires. King and Ballow’s main strategy, it appears, is to stretch out for as long as possible their client’s practice of violating labor laws, in the hopes that the unions representing Post-Gazette employees will collapse under the strain. But the struggles between owner and workers extend back to 2006, when the editorial staff last received a raise. The unions are still standing, and appear even more determined to save the paper, as well as their jobs.
There is no denying, nonetheless, how stressful the past several months have been, not just for the paper’s employees but also for its customers and the region’s civic life, which is heavily dependent on the functioning of a quality daily.
In April, the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the previous October’s Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting. Such an honor, Ryan Deto of the City Paper reports, did not stop Executive Editor Keith Burris from holding a meeting the following month in which he told managers the Block family wanted to cut 70 positions in the next two years. Since then, adds Deto, twenty Newspaper Guild members have left the Post-Gazette, while “nine managers have either taken buyouts, been fired, or been forced out by management.”
As of the end of the year, Deto notes, there were 139 Guild members and twelve non-Guild members remaining in the newsroom. At the end of September, the Post-Gazette cut back to three print editions a week—Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. One result was the expected cut of four pressmen positions, Chris Lang, president of the Graphic Communications Conference local (a Teamsters affiliate) told WESA-FM. Two dozen circulation and delivery employees were subsequently laid off, while other employees lost their health insurance when reduced to part-time, according to Teamsters’ lawyer Joe Pass Sr.
WESA reports the union’s contract stipulates that the newspaper must provide a year of work as substitute drivers to those laid off, and “six months of health care and wages” to laid off circulation employees. The Blocks’ cavalier disregard of that contract language has necessitated the Teamsters’ federal suit.
Meanwhile, shifts in reporters’ beats, reductions in enterprise reporting, the loss of trusted newsroom managers, and ongoing disagreements with Burris over news coverage, as reported by Deto of the City Paper, finally led to Newspaper Guild members voting “no confidence” in Burris, Publisher John Block, and Block Communications, Inc. on November 18. “They have now brought the battle into the newsroom and that has really solidified us,” said Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild local.
A “by-line strike” drew participation by 100% of the Post-Gazette’s reporters, photographers and columnists and lasted from November 20 to December 17, with an average of 54 by-lines withheld daily. The strike drew sympathy and support from fellow journalists such as Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post. The Guild’s international president said the strike was an inspiration to journalists from around the country.
Those journalists know how drastic cuts and deliberate oppression of employees can severely damage the quality of news coverage provided by regional newspapers, with publications like the Denver Post and the Cleveland Plain Dealer providing stark examples. The monitoring of governments and business activity suffers, and citizens lack the information needed to fully participate in their communities.
The Post-Gazette’s customers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied. Even on days when print editions are produced, there are reports of erratic delivery to both homes and news dealers. Access to the paper’s electronic editions can be quirky as well, depending on the device used to download material and the performance of internet connections. One selling point of newspapers has always been product reliability and accessibility, but the Blocks seem determined to make their product as unappealing as possible.
On December 30th, sale of the old Post-Gazette building on the Boulevard of the Allies to DeCicco Development of Moon Twp. was announced. The paper vacated the building in 2015. While John Block will whine publicly about his paper losing $22 million in 2018, he won’t disclose the sale price, nor the tens of millions in profits his company earns annually.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 1. February, 2020. All rights reserved.