Thursday, April 16, 2009

An open letter to my former Indy Star colleagues

I'd planned to remain silent on this issue, since it's doubtful speaking out will affect the situation, and probably only serve to alienate me from colleagues I still hold dear.

But if you've read the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild's post about the new contract you'll soon be voting upon, you'll know why I couldn't hold my cyber-tongue.

I am disappointed in the company's proposal, as I'm sure all of you are, as it includes pay cuts and a general weakening of the guild's influence. But, frankly, I'm also disappointed in the guild leadership for not better highlighting what I think is a critical aspect of the proposal.

Only at the very bottom of the long post do we learn that approving the contract would mean dropping the arbitration for employees who were let go in violation of the seniority clause back in December. In essence, the company is demanding that the guild abdicate its rights under the old contract in order to sign a new one.

Before you ask, yes, I am one of the seven people being represented by the guild in the arbitration process. We have already met with national guild representatives, and are scheduled to testify at the arbitration hearing in July. We have been told that our case is very strong. But if you approve this new contract, our case goes away.

Now, I could argue this from a selfish perspective and try to shame you into not cutting the seven of us loose in order to gain some stability for the remaining newsroom employees. Instead, let me tell why I think this clause is bad for you:

  1. Legally, there is no way the company could force the guild to drop ongoing arbitration proceedings. It's only because it happens to be a contract year that they're able to insist upon this. In legal terms, it's called ex post facto -- trying to retroactively change something you don't like using lawyerly maneuvering. Understand: The company cannot make the arbitration hearings go away. Only the guild can, by agreeing to do so.
  2. If the company succeeds in using negotiating tactics to make the union give up rights it had already agreed to, what's to stop them from doing it again? You're looking at this new contract that seems to guarantee no more furloughs or layoffs, and that seems pretty good right now. But I subscribe to the old, "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" axiom. The company already broke the seniority rules it had agreed to in the last contract, and now is asking you to validate that act.
  3. This is a rather brazen attempt to pit employee vs. employee, or rather current employee vs. former employee. I don't know about you, but I don't care for that sort of tactic.
  4. Dropping the arbitration drives a wedge between the guild and its membership. It basically says, "Sure, the union negotiates on our behalf, but no one believes they have the power to enforce it." The guild contract is not just an agreement between a union and the company; it's also a binding pact between the union and its members. If a union is muscled into giving up on rights it had already won, how can its members have faith in it to bargain for their future?
Now, I want to say that I don't blame the guild leaders for this bad contract offer; given the fiscal climate, it's probably the best they could get. And I've been told that they offered to endorse the contract in exchange for removing the arbitration clause, and were refused, which is why this contract is being put to a vote without any endorsement or recommendation from the union officers. I have also been assured that at least some of the leaders themselves are planning to vote against it.

There will be informational meetings coming up before the contract vote, and I hope you'll attend one. I plan to be there as well, if they'll let me, to further explain why I think dropping the arbitration is not only bad for the December Seven, but for all of us.

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