When three-quarters of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s guild employees voted to strike two years ago, their parent union — the Communications Workers of America — said the workers were not ready.
Instead, the union opted to work through the processes established by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for settling disputes between management and employees. That strategy has not been dramatic, but the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh has won a couple of victories.
One was forcing the company to pay a total of $100,000 to reimburse all the union members for changes to their health insurance that were not negotiated. That happened after a November 2021 court ruling.
Now, the NLRB has said the Post-Gazette and its parent company, Block Communications, have been negotiating in bad faith as if they do not really want to reach new contract terms with the guild.
“It’s a monumental step forward,” says Ed Blazina, acting president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh. “It doesn’t happen very often that the NLRB steps in. The complaint says the company offered us things no one in their right mind would take and they knew that. They bargained in bad faith and offered proposals that they have no expectation that we would accept. They’d be happy if we accepted them, but no reasonable person would.”
When I reached out to the Post-Gazette for comment, the company sent back this response: “We believe the NLRB complaint is meritless and seeks to change over 80 years of settled labor law precedent. The company will vigorously defend itself against the charges until we are fully vindicated.”
Despite ongoing labor strife at the Post-Gazette, the newspaper continues to produce award-winning journalism (its 2019 Pulitzer Prize and, just this month, the Pennsylvania News Media Association 2022 award for the state’s best large newspaper). If the labor problems can be resolved, it could remove an obstacle to the newspaper’s future success. Journalists clearly want to work for the PG but they’re tired of this issue hanging over their heads.
Blazina laid out some of the union’s concerns, including that newsroom employees at the Post-Gazette have not had an across-the-board raise in 15 years, with many making top scale at around $56,000 a year. And in the summer of 2020, the company imposed work conditions that made healthcare more expensive, eliminated employees’ 8% pension contribution, allowed nonunion journalists to do guild work, and got rid of arbitration for grievances so that if the union files a grievance, the company simply can deny it.
Morale has improved since Executive Editor and Vice President Stan Wischnowski arrived in September 2020, Blazina says. Wischnowski has managed the newsroom through the pandemic and many employees still have not fully returned to the office. He has also operated under the new rules set forth by the company.
“He has done his best to try to manage the newsroom in a nicer, more collegial manner,” Blazina says. “He’s not operating with a reign of terror, but he has been more than willing to use managers to do guild work, use freelancers to do guild work, and we have filed grievances over all of that.”
The newsroom, meanwhile, continues to shrink through buyouts and departures: The guild had about 150 members two years ago and has about 100 now, Blazina says. At the same time, the Post-Gazette has been hiring reporters, but just not as many as have been leaving.
While the NLRB complaint represents a big step, the legal process still has a long way to go. At a hearing scheduled for Sept. 12, the NLRB and the company will each get to make their case. The union’s attorneys have estimated the company owes about $4.5 million for damages and legal fees if it loses.
Either side may appeal that ruling to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in either Pittsburgh or Washington, D.C. If the complaint gets upheld in court, the NLRB can go to federal court to enforce a reimbursement payment and put the previously existing contract back into effect until the company and union reach new terms.
“It didn’t have to reach this point,” Blazina says. “We want to negotiate a contract and get back to being free to do the work we love.”
Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may email him.