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One year after walking out, workers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette remain on strike

  • Jillian Forstadt/WESA
Elected leaders, including county councilor Bethany Hallam and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, rally on Oct. 6 outside the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's North Shore offices.

 Jillian Forstadt / 90.5 WESA

Elected leaders, including county councilor Bethany Hallam and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, rally on Oct. 6 outside the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's North Shore offices.

It’s been one year since journalists and editors at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette walked off the job over wages and health care, joining members of their sister unions who had gone on strike two weeks prior.

In the 365 days since, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh — which represents the paper’s newsroom employees — has remained on strike, and bargaining sessions with Post-Gazette management have brought little progress.

Each side blames the other for stalling negotiations: union leaders say management won’t entertain their proposals; meanwhile, the paper’s representatives have said in statements that union members have brought to the table terms to which management cannot agree.

It’s important to note that tensions between the news guild and the Post-Gazette predate the ongoing strike. The paper’s unions have been without a contract since March 31, 2017, when the last bargaining agreement expired without a successor in place. An administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in January that the paper had violated federal labor law by failing to bargain a new one in good faith.

Upon handing down his ruling, judge Geoffrey Carter ordered the Post-Gazette to resume contract talks and rescind “unlawful, unilateral changes” imposed on union members in 2020.

None of that, however, has happened in the months since, and the paper appealed the decision in March, saying it would take the case all the way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit if necessary.

In the meantime, lawyers for the Post-Gazette have been hard at work challenging union members’ right to picket on company property and filing complaints against Pittsburgh’s mayor and chief of police for allegedly failing to protect company property from trespassing.

Experts say King and Ballow, the law firm representing the paper in bargaining and in front of the NLRB, are known for hard-line tactics and dragged-out negotiations between their clients and union representatives.

Since the strike began, newsroom employees on the picket line have received support from their parent union, The NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America (TNG-CWA). At a rally marking one year since the strike began earlier this month, recently appointed CWA president Claude Cummings Jr. pledged to “unite our union and our country around this fight.”

Cummings has only led the organization since July, but he’s a longtime member of the union’s executive board. He said union leadership, himself included, could have done more over the past year to pressure company officials. (CWA’s past president, Chris Shelton, never visited the North Shore picket line.)

“I think as a union, all of us — because we do have an executive board — should have brought more attention to what’s taking place,” Cummings told WESA. “And I think that we can do that right. We can do that under my leadership. I plan to do that.”

Workers at the Post-Gazette, Cummings said, should get the kind of attention given to the strikes by SAG-AFTRA and the United Auto Workers, albeit the number of striking workers is considerably smaller.

Finding agreement on a complex health care dispute is key to resolving strike

While union officials are trying to up the pressure, management at the Post-Gazette have taken their own steps to control the narrative. The company took out a full-page advertisement over the weekend to share the “truth behind the strike.” The page included a QR code that, when scanned, took readers to a webpage detailing the ongoing health care dispute.

While the Q&A published by the Post-Gazette does include factual elements, it also omits a major part of the drawn-out dispute: For nearly four years, the company refused to cover employees’ health care coverage increases as stipulated by the union contract in place between 2014 and 2017. A federal appeals court ruled in early 2022 that the paper’s failure to cover those increases violated federal labor law, and, as a result, the company paid out more than $100,000 to guild members.

Then, in September 2022, the health insurance provider covering the four craft unions (but not the newsroom employees represented by the Newspaper Guild) terminated coverage due to the company’s failure to pay the rate increases of $19 per employee per week. (Union officials estimate the amount the company has paid in legal fees during the strike far exceeds what it would have cost them to cover those premiums.)

Shortly thereafter, on Oct. 6, the four craft unions walked off the job on the basis of unfair labor practices, saying the company had unilaterally imposed new health care conditions. In the months since, the unions have proposed a new health care agreement in which members would pay for the $19 increase.

However, in its version of events the paper’s management asserts that the union proposal would allow its health care plan provider — in this case, the Teamsters #261 and Employers Welfare Fund — to “unilaterally change the benefits and the Post-Gazette’s costs for healthcare during the term of the Agreement and thereafter.”

Union bargaining experts who spoke to WESA denied the validity of the company’s claim, noting that the proposal does not give unfettered rights to the welfare fund or include language that is out of the ordinary for agreements to implement union health care coverage.

While newsroom employees were not directly impacted by the health care dispute between the four craft unions and newspaper management, union representatives say the issue is now inextricably tied to the Newspaper Guild’s strike. For one thing, in the weeks after the craft guilds first went out on strike, national union leadership with CWA — which represents the majority of those on strike, including production and advertising workers — told newsroom leaders that they would have to strike alongside the other unions or risk losing its union charter.

Guild leaders now say the health care dispute of their sister unions is tantamount to their own picket line priorities.

The Newspaper Guild demands that the Post-Gazette’s owners and management 1) resume contract negotiations, 2) undo working conditions imposed on members in 2020, and 3) meet the health care demands of its striking sister unions.

“Those have been the demands and they haven’t changed for a year and the company has just refused [to engage with the demands],” said TNG-CWA President Jon Schleuss.

But ending the strike depends on resolving all three matters. As the unions’ longtime lawyer Joe Pass put it: “Without health care, no one’s going back to work.”

Jillian Forstadat/WESA

Does the union have the numbers to leverage in negotiations?

As of this month, around 90 people remain on strike at the Post-Gazette: 35 represented by the Newspaper Guild, the largest union on strike, and several dozen more with the four unions representing the paper’s production, distribution and advertising workers.

But even with 90 workers across five unions out on strike, the Post-Gazette is still putting out a paper. Many journalists who previously walked off the job have since crossed the picket line and gone back to work. The paper even launched a collaboration with nonprofit investigative outlet ProPublica, a partnership union members at both publications denounced.

A spokesperson for the paper sent a statement saying the paper is optimistic a resolution will come soon, though her statement focused more on “the Herculean efforts” of employees who continue to work, many of whom resigned from the union.

The paper has also hired close to two dozen new newsroom employees since the strike began, according to the union officials. In many cases, those people replaced those striking, though, under federal law, it wouldn’t be legal for those workers to permanently replace striking workers once the labor dispute has been resolved.

“These are people that have taken advantage of the strikes for selfish reasons to come in, get jobs and replace our work,” said Zack Tanner, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh. “That does make it a lot harder for us to execute the strike and get back to work.”

Tanner said the guild has instead focused its efforts on the National Labor Relations Board. It’s pushing the Post-Gazette to comply with the administrative law judge’s order to reinstate the previous union contract while they get back to bargaining a new one.

The unions’ attorneys have requested that the NLRB pursue a court order forcing the company to comply with its previous mandates, though they said that swift action on the matter isn’t likely given that the agency is both understaffed and underfunded.

Schleuss said union leaders are willing to push “all the way up to the arrest” of the paper’s owners, J.R. Block and his twin brother Allan Block, for violating federal law if the company continues to ignore the NLRB’s mandates.

Schleuss pointed to the arrest of two salon owners last month who failed to comply with a court-enforced NLRB order, though the paper’s unions would first need to secure a similar order before arrests are within the realm of possibility.

“If it takes the U.S. Marshals detaining the Blocks to get dignified working conditions that respect the workers and the people of Pittsburgh, then that’s what’s deserved,” Tanner said.

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