PiPress, Guild Reach Agreement

This just in: Dean Singleton’s PiPress and the newspaper guild have a tentative deal. Here’s the memo:

October 18, 2007

Guild, Pioneer Press reach tentative agreement on 4-year contract

After three days of intensive, off-the-record talks, the Guild and the Saint Paul Pioneer Press reached agreement late Wednesday on a four-year contract covering 340 employees.

The tentative agreement, which runs through July 31, 2011, would increase wages for all employees by 2 percent on July 1, 2008; 2 percent on July 1, 2009; and 3 percent on 2010. The MediaNews matching 401(k) plan would be offered to eligible employees upon ratification.

The agreement includes a pension freeze, a one-time vacation concession, and significant changes to medical insurance and disability pay. It leaves intact nearly all of the language in the contract, including seniority on layoffs, the right to daily overtime and mileage reimbursement. It avoids the two-tier wage scheme the company had sought, and newsroom team leaders would remain covered by the Guild.

If ratified, the agreement would bar layoffs through December 31, 2008.

Three key issues that Guild members identified as critical to the future of the Pioneer Press were addressed in the talks: 1) the company agreed to partner with the Guild to apply for a grant of up to $400,000 from the state of Minnesota to design a training program focused on multimedia skills and the paper’s digital future; 2) the company agreed to a joint committee to investigate and make recommendations to resolve issues and concerns affecting productivity in advertising; and 3) the company agreed to include content employees at TwinCities.com in the Guild.

A membership vote on the tentative agreement will be scheduled for the middle part of next week. More details about the agreement will be provided beginning Friday, Oct. 19. A unit meeting will be scheduled on Wednesday, Oct. 24 to present the agreement and answer questions.

Unless otherwise noted in the following summary, all existing contract language would remain unchanged.

Duration of contract: Four years, expiring July 31, 2011. Wages: Across-the-board raises of 2 percent on July 1, 2008, 2 percent on July 1, 2009, and 3 percent on July 1, 2010. Medical insurance: This proved to be the most difficult issue to resolve, because of significant changes planned by MediaNews in 2008 — changes just recently made known to the Guild bargaining committee. In a nutshell, the changes include a new, less expensive base plan upon which our rates for the HealthPartners plan, which most of our members use, is based. The effect was to create large increases in premiums for members on the HealthPartners plan. The company would have imposed those changes on January 1, under the terms of our expired contract, regardless of whether a settlement was reached. The Guild committee worked to mitigate the impact of the change by seeking new quotes from HealthPartners for the existing plan, and for a new, second HealthPartners plan that would be more affordable but would have higher co-pays. As a result, HealthPartners premiums will rise, but not as much as they would have otherwise. The Guild also secured a cap on costs for the hardest-hit group: two adults with no children.

(More specifics on the changes: The former Knight Ridder Blue and Green plans offered by United HealthCare would be replaced effective January 1, 2008 with two new national, self-insured plans offered by MediaNews. The two plans, administered by Blue Cross, include a “core” option and a “buy-up” option with a higher premium. Under both options, employees choosing single coverage would pay 22 percent of the premiums; the three other coverage options — employee plus spouse, employee plus children, and family — would be offered at 30 percent of the premium. The current HealthPartners plan would continue to be offered, alongside a new HealthPartners option with benefits similar to the old Knight Ridder Blue plan. The Blue Cross “buy-up” plan would serve as the base plan for calculating premium contributions for the HealthPartners plans. Several factors will cause the employee share of the HealthPartners premiums to increase substantially. )

Retiree medical: The current retiree medical options would continue to be offered to employees who are 55 or who turn 55 and who choose to retire before July 31, 2011. Coverage would not be available to employees retiring after that date. The change does not affect retirees now receiving medical coverage.

Pension: The Guild pension plan would be frozen, but, for the life of this contract, employees would continue to receive service credit. That means veteran employees can accrue service under this contract to qualify for early retirement, and less senior employees can continue to accrue service to vest in the plan. The freeze does not affect any benefits accrued by employees to date, and has no effect on retirees now receiving benefits. The company must continue to make payments to bring the plan to fully funded status.

401(k): Guild-represented employees would become eligible upon ratification for the MediaNews 401(k) program under the same terms as management employees. The plan includes a 50 percent match up to 6 percent of an employee’s contributions (3 percent maximum employer match). Previous service with the company counts toward vesting.

TwinCities.com: Content employees at TwinCities.com would become part of the Guild bargaining unit. Freelance: The Guild agreed to language permitting the company to use freelance material for prep and small college sports, as well as for police blotter items and daily suburban briefs similar to those written by news clerks. Training: The company would work with the Guild to identify and partner with a local college to apply for a state Job Skills Training Program grant of up to $400,000. The money would be used to create and provide a training program specific to the needs of Pioneer Press employees as the paper continues to expand its presence on the web. Among other things, the grant would help newsroom employees obtain and enhance multimedia skills.

Advertising: The company agreed to a joint Guild-management committee to investigate workplace issues and concerns in the department and to present recommendations designed to improve communication, productivity, and revenue growth. The Guild agreed to eliminate minimum commission rates that had been replaced with a different commission structure in the department (so-called “commission-grid plans”), and also agreed to allow business development accounts of roughly $40,000 or less and inactive accounts to be transferred from salaried to commission sales representatives. The company agreed, in turn, to index base wages for commission-grid plans to the raises negotiated for other employees; to elevate sales representatives on the commission-grid plans from Tier 1 to Tier 2 base pay not later than 15 months from their date of hire; to guarantee for two months the payment of a minimum of 100 percent to goal for new hires and for commission sales representatives transferred to new territories; to use average daily earnings as the basis for computing paid time off; and to resolve a grievance filed over average daily earnings by making all affected employees whole for their losses.

Vacation: The Guild agreed to move to a new accrual system. The effect of the change is this: the company eventually gets to wipe more than $1 million in accrued vacation off its books, resulting in a one-time savings. Members who continue working do not lose any vacation time. The number of weeks granted per years of service is unchanged. But when a member leaves the PP, chances are he or she will not receive the payout for previously “accrued” time as in the past. Here’s how the change would be implemented: Effective January 1, 2009, employees will earn and use vacation in the same year; currently, employees earn vacation in one year and use it in the next. (Employees will be able, in the new accrual system, to take vacation before it’s earned.) Effective January 1, 2008, when the transition to the new system would begin, employees would be eligible to use the full amount of vacation earned in 2007, but would not accrue new vacation until January 1, 2009. The change, again, would have no affect on the amount of vacation to which employees are entitled; an employee who earns four weeks of vacation each year still would be eligible to take those four weeks in 2008, 2009 and beyond. The change would affect employees eligible for a payout of accrued vacation upon resignation of employment.

Severance: The Guild agreed to add “gross misconduct” as a basis for denying severance to terminated employees. The severance cap of 38 weeks remains unchanged.

Job security: The company agreed to no layoffs for 14 months, through December 31, 2008. Sick leave, short- and long-term disability: The current sick leave pool of 10 days annually, with a maximum bank of 20 days, would remain unchanged. The Guild agreed to replace existing short- and long-term disability policies with those offered to management. Those policies pay 70 percent for a qualifying short-term disability and 60 percent for a qualifying long-term disability. The company must supplement short-term disability for Guild-covered employees so that they receive 100 percent of pay for up to 120 days; thereafter, employees would receive 70 percent of pay for 60 days, and 60 percent thereafter.

The Guild bargaining committee included Julie Forster, unit chair Alex Friedrich, Meggen Lindsay and Jim Ragsdale of the newsroom; former unit chair Jack Sullivan of the newsroom (through August); Dave Noble of advertising; Lance Forys and Duane Maxson of circulation; and Marilyn Clements and Darren Carroll of the Guild office.

The committee has been supported throughout the process by three dozen Guild leaders and activists including Mara Gottfried, Cheryl Burch-Schoff, Tim Nelson, Dave Orrick, Fred Melo, Kelly Blaiser and more than 30 Guild contacts. All took part in an unprecedented level of preparation for bargaining.