On May Day, or International Workers’ Day, representatives of some of the striking workers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette met with a company lawyer and a manager to talk about health care. They had a lot to talk about. They still do.
Health care is the issue that caused members of four unions — in production, advertising and transportation — to go on strike on Oct. 6, when their health care costs jumped by $19 per person a week that the company would not pay to that plan. The company wanted to put them on the company’s health care plan instead.
Those workers were joined on Oct. 18 by newsroom workers striking over their own labor issues, such as the conditions the PG imposed on them — including the company health plan — after declaring a contract bargaining impasse in 2020. The last contract had expired in 2017.
Company lawyer Richard Lowe went back even further in time, to 2014, to rehash how they’d gotten here on a drizzly Monday in the Riverboat Room of Downtown’s Omni William Penn Hotel. Sitting beside him was PG Production Operations Director Rob Weber.
Sitting at the black cloth-covered long table across from them were Communications Workers of America District 2-13 Vice President Ed Mooney and the leaders of two of the CWA unions in bargaining, typos President Don McConnell and mailers President John Clark. Three representatives of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, including President Zack Tanner, also were present.
In the last bargaining session of the non-Guild unions on April 12, Mooney had given the company a design for a health care plan that could work for all five unions even if the company chose to administer it, and he asked that the company run the numbers on what it would cost workers if the company did.
Lowe opened at 10 a.m. Monday by saying the company’s benefits people had tried to evaluate the design, but, because the unions hadn’t presented an administrator nor any of its costs, “That’s not a health care proposal.” He officially requested that the unions present those costs.
He surmised that because the union’s plan design has a lower deductible, it would have higher costs and said it otherwise wouldn’t fit with the company’s own health care plan, so it seemed to not bring the two sides closer. He also said that the company had presented five proposals in recent years that the unions rejected or ignored. “That’s the question we have for you today: Why are we doing this?”
Repeating that he’s looking for ways to bring them closer and end the strikes, Mooney argued several points, including that union lawyers believe that workers’ contributions to outside health care plan costs may be deducted from their paychecks pretax, something the company has said it cannot do. He continued to pursue that during a long afternoon break that included lunch.
For the second session at about 3 p.m., because it was officially the mailers union’s time, the company was represented by Lowe’s King & Ballow colleague Michael D. Oesterle. He also went back to 2014, when he said contract mistakes were made that still are causing problems with agreeing on health care.
Both parties found themselves agreeing on one thing — that some of the people involved a decade or more ago (a 1988 agreement came up) no longer are involved, and some aren’t even alive.
Mooney pointed out that most of those in the room weren’t involved then, either. “How do we get to a point where we can put this back together?”
Oesterle said the company already was looking into the pretax employee contributions question and reiterated its request that the unions provide the costs for the health care plan they want. “We’ll look at anything.”
As they ended around 4 p.m., Mooney said, “I hope we find a way to move forward.”
The two sides are to meet again Tuesday morning.
Bob, a feature writer and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and serving as interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.