Representatives of four unions whose members have been on strike at the Post-Gazette since early October met with the company Wednesday morning in hopes they could begin hammering out a deal that would bring more than 100 employees back to work.
They did talk, at times quite spiritedly, with barbs flying across a meeting room at Downtown’s Omni William Penn Hotel. But there was no actual bargaining.
By early afternoon, the session ended, with union leaders expressing frustration as well as some hope: They’ll meet with company representatives again in an effort to come to an agreement on health care, the issue that triggered the strike.
The newspaper’s production and transportation unions went on strike on Oct. 6 after the PG refused to pay an additional $19 per person per week for workers to keep their health care plan. Newsroom employees walked out on their own unfair labor practice strike on Oct. 18.
This was the first bargaining session between the production and transportation unions and the company since the strike’s beginning, and it started with a lengthy back-and-forth about health care. “We’re not going to solve the contract problem until we solve the health care problem,” said Ed Mooney, vice president of the Communications Workers of America District 2-13. “We can solve the problem collectively.”
He suggested the unions and the company form a committee, with representatives of all unions, “to negotiate a health care plan we can all live with. That will go a long way toward solving the problem.”
Attorney Richard Lowe, representing the Post-Gazette, declined the offer. “We’re beyond committees,” he said. “We need a specific proposal.”
“We gave it to you,” replied Mooney, referring to a proposal submitted before the strike. “We gave you options. You didn’t like any of them.”
Before the talks ended, Mooney said the unions will put together a new health care proposal after getting numbers from their former provider, the Western Pennsylvania Teamsters and Employers Welfare Fund.
“My only comment,” he told the Pittsburgh Union Progress afterward, “would be, we need to keep working” on an alternative health care plan.
The two sides sat at tables facing each other at opposite ends of the hotel’s Oliver Room. Attorney Lowe and Rob Weber, the PG’s production operations director, represented the newspaper. Joining Mooney in representing the workers were Chris Lang, president of the pressmen’s union; Don McConnell, president of the Pittsburgh typographical union; and John Clark, president of the mailers’ union, with its vice president, Joe Baker; joining them later was Joe Barbano of the Teamsters union. Also present was mediator Fulton Miklos.
The unions each were to have a session to discuss their own issues, but they share many aspects of a complicated labor situation.
At one point, the unions’ attorney, Joe Pass, asked Lowe when the company planned for the Post-Gazette to be entirely digital and to completely drop its print product, which would have a dramatic impact on workers who produce the physical newspaper.
“We don’t have a date,” Lowe responded. He added that he’d asked company officials, but they did not offer a timeline.
Pass expressed frustration and reminded Lowe that he first asked that question six years earlier and had received the same reply. A timeline to end the printed newspaper affects the type of deal that would be negotiated, Pass said.
“If it’s going to happen in the next six months, we can get a deal [quickly],” Pass said. “If it’s five years, it’s a different story.”
He told Lowe to bring that information to the next session.
Sitting in on the negotiations from the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh were local President Zack Tanner and other members and officers including national Executive Vice President Marian Needham. The guild’s demands to end its strike have been for the PG to return health care coverage to the other workers, restore the terms of the guild’s last contract that expired in 2017 and to negotiate in good faith a new contract.
The guild had four post-strike bargaining sessions — two in November and two in December — none of which yielded any results, and no additional sessions had been scheduled.
Then, on Jan. 26, a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge ruled in favor of the guild, saying the company didn’t negotiate in good faith, illegally imposed working conditions and unlawfully surveilled workers engaged in union activities.
Geoffrey Carter, who heard the case last fall, ordered the newspaper to resume bargaining with the guild within 15 days of the union requesting it. He also ordered the company to rescind the unilateral working conditions it had imposed in 2020, and restore the union’s previous contract, which expired in 2017. That included health care coverage from the Western Pennsylvania Teamsters and Employers Welfare Fund.
A spokesperson said the company would appeal the case, something Lowe confirmed when he said, “We will appeal it all the way to the Third Circuit [Court of Appeals].” The guild said its demands to end the strike remain the same.
The guild scheduled its own bargaining session at the same hotel for this Friday morning.