Detroit News, Free Press and Observer & Eccentric Bargaining 2019

The Free Press Makes Additional Extreme, Outrageous Contract Proposals, Eliminating Nearly All Employee Rights and Protections. The Guild Addresses the Sale of Gannett and Free Press to Gatehouse Media. 

July 24, 2019

On July 23, the Guild with met in joint bargaining with the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News. However, neither the Publisher nor any member of Free Press editorial management was present. The Free Press was represented only by a Gannett attorney and HR representative. 

As we previously reported, the Free Press and News already proposed to eliminate bargaining on health care and provide the Gannett plan (changeable at any time), termination of the Free Press pension plan and elimination of across the board raises, with “merit pay” only. They proposed a two-year contract with one-year re-opener – effectively a one-year contract. 

In Tuesday’s bargaining, the Free Press went after the rest of the collective bargaining agreement. It proposed changing 33 sections of the contract, including outright elimination of 13 sections. 

Among other thing, the Free Press proposed to change or eliminate contract terms on: 

– No reduction in salaries during life of the contract – Sick pay – Short and long-term disability pay – Pay for special assignments – Seniority, layoffs, volunteers for layoffs, recall rights, pay upon recall (company sole discretion on all issues, unlimited exemptions) – Holiday work schedules 

– Guild work jurisdiction – Restrictions of use of part-time employees and temps – Bargaining on new classifications and their wages – Restrictions on assignment to work and positions 

outside job classifications or even outside the contract – Rights concerning promotions and promotion pay – Professional integrity – Relief awarded by arbitrators 

The Guild re-stated its original position: There is no case to be made for more contractual concessions, beyond those made in the last 15 years. Gannett and the Free Press has not even tried to make the case. They have provided no information, as they did in the past, concerning the Free Press’s performance, financial condition or cost savings to be realized from its proposals. The Free Press, by its own admission, is doing well and had its best year in 25 years. 

The Guild then changed the subject. We asked about the impending sale of the Free Press along with the rest of Gannett to GateHouse Media, LLC and the impact of the sale on Detroit operations. We asked: Can you confirm the sale? Will the Detroit Free Press, Inc., continue to exist as the employer? Which corporate parent, Gannett or GateHouse, is going to determine the economics of the contract settlement in Detroit? Will there be any successorship issues (meaning, continuation of employees and union contracts after the sale is complete)? 

The company could not answer any of these questions. It asked that the request for information be put in writing. 

We expressed our understanding of the sale and our concerns: 

  • GateHouse is owned by New Media Investment Group, Inc. 
  • New Media is managed and controlled by Fortress Investment Group, LLC. Fortress is a New York private equity and hedge fund firm. It has financed the growth of GateHouse, which has about doubled its newspapers owned since it emerged from bankruptcy in 2013. Fortress makes its money not by owning shares of GateHouse, but by being paid significant fees by Gatehouse ($21 million in 2018). 
  • Fortress is owned by a Japanese bank, SoftBank Group Corp., which bought Fortress in 2017 for $3.3 billion. 

Quality, Affordable Healthcare Matter to Our Members

May 3, 2019

Gannett wants us to move to its high-deductible plans. It insists the lower cost premiums make up for the deductible and higher out-of-pocket costs. It also says reaching the plans’ out-of-pocket maximums is a good thing.

The Guild conducted a survey and asked its members what was important to them regarding their health care plan. One thing is clear: the current NEHP plan is far superior. Members understand the importance of quality healthcare. They do not buy Gannett’s arguments for its plans, which save the company money at the cost of Guild members’ benefits.

Members use their health insurance regularly and value low co-pays and no deductible. They understand higher premium costs come with quality health insurance and are willing to pay more upfront to ensure out-of-pocket costs are low. They also like the predictability and stability of the plan.

Despite Gannett’s claim of administrative issues, 97% of the Guild’s survey respondents said they have had no major issue with the administration of their benefits. Furthermore, 75% of those who said they had issues also said they were handled quickly and reasonably.

Overall, the picture is clear: Our members want to maintain their current healthcare and value its low out-of-pocket costs.

Member Story-  John Heider, O&E Photographer

“Before I joined the Guild in 2015 I was a non-union worker in Gannett’s Hometown newspaper group and had to take the company’s United Health Care policy. The policy always left me wondering what would and wouldn’t be covered and I was constantly getting bills to pay either 20% of a deductible – even after I’d paid a large amount of a yearly deductible – or I’d get a note saying that the prescribed tests weren’t covered at all.

Gannet might advertise their non-union employee healthcare policies as being affordable as the initial premium costs are lower than the National Employee Health Program, but when I had my knee replaced in 2014 (on the United Health policy) I had to pay more than $5,500 out pocket for that year. That was a big hit to take.

The Guild’s NEHP policy, however, has been a dream of a health care system and I’ll gladly pay a little more in an initial premium cost to not have to constantly worry what is and isn’t covered. Last year, under the NEHP system, I had a labrum tear surgery on my shoulder and a skin cancer surgery on my face. I literally didn’t see a single bill for those surgeries – even though they were outpatient – everything was covered at 100%.

The Free Press and News Demand Major Concessions in Contract Bargaining.Guild Response: No Case Has Been Made or Can Be Made For More Concessions.

March 26, 2019

The Guild’s joint bargaining committee met with the Free Press and News on Friday, March 22. The Free Press made proposals for major contract changes and concessions including eliminating the current health insurance plan, transferring to Gannett insurance, and terminating the Free Press pension plan. The Free Press said it preferred merit pay only, with no across-the-board raises. It proposed a two-year contract, with either side having the right to re-open after one year.

The Free Press formally proposed the Gannett health insurance plan which, as explained in the last bulletin, has three options with progressively higher co-pays and deductibles and inferior benefits, in exchange for lower monthly premiums. In the first year of a new contract, the company would provide money to offset the Gannett annual deductibles through health savings accounts (HSA) or health reimbursement arrangement (HRA). After the first year, Guild-represented employees would get insurance “same as” managers and employees with no bargaining rights. The Free Press proposed as an alternative that employees could keep the current health plan, but the company would pay no more than what it would pay under its own plan. So, employee monthly contributions for Blue Care Network coverage would increase $148 for a single employee, $528 for employee and spouse, $689 for employee and children and $405 for family coverage.

The Free Press claimed that the Guild had “misconceptions” about healthcare benefits and the current NEHP plans are not “economically rational” for employees or the company.

The Free Press claimed it has the right to terminate the Free Press pension plan. It proposed to terminate the Free Press pension plan, freeze benefit accruals by December 31, 2019, and then buy annuities to pay benefits. There would no longer be a plan administered jointly by Free Press and Guild trustees. The Free Press proposed to replace the pension plan with a 401k plan in which the company would match employee contributions from 1% to 4% and partially match contributions from 5% to 7%.

The News deferred to the Free Press on the insurance issue and term of contract. It said it would wait to address pension and short-term disability benefits until other benefit issues were resolved. It proposed to eliminate the $1500 paid-up insurance policy that employees get when they retire. The News also made a significant number of proposals to change contract language regarding layoffs, seniority, part-timers, work hours, overtime pay, etc.

The Guild asked some fundamental questions: What is the case for these proposed concessions? Is the Free Press losing money? What was the Free Press profit margin in the last fiscal year? What are the cost savings to the company of these concessions? How do current pension benefits compare to what might be the retirement benefits under the proposed 401k plan? We pointed out that in the past when the company claimed the need for concessions, it provided detailed financial and operational information. The Free Press said it was “not claiming inability to pay” and would not claim that. It said the Guild was not entitled to information regarding profits. It said that it needed “reasonable operational accommodations”, it was reasonable to transition to the Gannett health plan and “termination of the pension plan is going to occur.” The News said it had no costings of proposed concessions.

The Guild stated its position.

  • The Guild does not have any misconceptions about Gannett’s insurance. We disagree that the current plan is “not economically rational.” The company should assume that Guild members are sophisticated users of health benefits and fully able to assess their own self-interest. We do not agree to “same as” insurance, because it removes health care from bargaining, benefits can be changed by the company and employees don’t know what their benefits will be.
  • The pension plan is healthy, not in distress and not underfunded. It remains among the healthiest in the nation.
  • Merit pay only is not acceptable, because it is subjective and selective, many employees are left out and there is no merit plan stating how employees get a raise or bonus.  
  • A one-year contract is unacceptable, because it just means the company will come back for more concessions.  During the period of pay cuts and freezes, we had longer term contracts, so the same should hold true now.
  • There is no case for the kinds of concessions demanded by the company and no case for terminating the pension plan. Employees still haven’t recovered from the concessions made in the past.

 

Guild Message to Free Press and News:We Want A Normal Contract.  There’s No Case For More Concessions.                                                                                               February 25, 2019

The Guild had two bargaining sessions last week, on Thursday with the News and on Friday with the Free Press. The Guild laid out its view of the context of this bargaining:  The newspapers have weathered the worst of the industry and financial crisis, with the aid of tremendous concessions by the employees – wage cut, wage freeze, paying more for health care, layoffs, etc.  Employees have still not recouped all they lost. Now, things have stabilized somewhat. The papers seem to be doing well by their own description, and the parent companies even want to buy more papers. The employees who are left are dedicated and doing a great job for the company.  There is no case for further concessions. We want a normal contract with some modest improvements. We should reach reasonable settlement and not mess with success.

The Guild presented initial proposals to both the News and the Free Press.  These included a three-year contract with across-the-board raises of 3 percent in each year, elimination of all exemptions to layoffs by seniority and the addition of one day of funeral leave for extended family.

The News had no proposals.  Its position was that it had to wait on the Free Press and Gannett, because Gannett determines the budget for the News/Free Press joint operating agreement and takes the lead on health insurance.

The Free Press made a lengthy presentation regarding health insurance, through Gannett’s attorney/VP of Labor Relations and an outside attorney from a Chicago law firm.  They said they were not making proposals at this point but wanted to present information for discussion purposes regarding Gannett’s health care plans.

The Free Press described Gannett plans in effect for management employees and other Gannett properties.  The plans have three options, with progressively higher deductibles and co-pays and inferior benefits, in exchange for lower monthly premiums for employees in most cases (but not all).  For example, the plans have up-front annual deductibles of $1500 to $5200 for an individual and $3000 to $5200 for family coverage. Plus, employees have to pay up-front a 20% co-pay of the cost of hospitalization and surgery, diagnostics, outpatient surgery, emergency room care, medical equipment, rehabilitation, etc.  In two of the plans, employees pay 20% of drug costs. Employees pay these costs in addition to the monthly premiums.

We pointed out that our current health plan has no annual deductible and no co-pays on diagnostics, outpatient surgery, medical equipment and rehabilitation.  It has co-pays of only $250 on hospitalization and surgery and $150 on ER.

The Free Press argued that the Gannett plans have a lower annual out-of-pocket maximum for deductibles and co-pays than our current NEHP plan, so up-front deductibles and co-pays shouldn’t be a problem.  The Gannett annual out-of-pocket max is $5000 to $5850 for an individual and $7500 to $10,000 for a family. The NEHP annual out-of-pocket max is $6350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family. However, we pointed out that because our benefits are much better, no one has ever hit the annual max.  With Gannett plans, employees are very likely to hit the annual max, probably every year, and certainly in case of any significant health care need, in addition to paying the monthly premiums.

The bottom line is that we told the Free Press that our Bargaining Committee compared the plans in detail and the Gannett plans are unacceptable.  We explained that Gannett plans have been proposed here in the past and we rejected them, in part because the Gannett plans can be changed at any time, however Gannett wants.  That basically takes health care out of collective bargaining. Call us crazy, but we want to know what we have for the full term of the contract.

Bargaining Resumes February 12, 21, 22                                                        Jan. 16, 2019

The Guild has set bargaining dates for February 12 and 22 to meet with representatives of Gannett and with representatives of the Detroit News on February 21.

We anticipate discussions of larger economic issues, such as wages, healthcare and pensions during the meeting with Gannett representatives. The meeting with the Detroit News likely will concern only specific language for News Guild members.

As many of you have heard, Digital First Media and Alden Global Capital has made a hostile bid to buy Gannett. The Guild International is conducting further research on the subject and we are waiting for news. However, the task at hand remains the same: We must work to get a new collective bargaining agreement. For more information, you can read the statement from The News Guild International here.

Initial talks held for 2019 contract negotiations                                                Jan. 9, 2019

The Guild met with representatives of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News on Tuesday, Jan. 8.

The company’s chief spokesperson was John Fenix, an attorney who is Gannett’s vice president for labor relations. He and other company representatives are all fairly new to Gannett, and not familiar with Detroit’s lengthy bargaining history. They had many questions for the Guild. Among a few others on the company’s side were Free Press Editor Peter Bhatia and Detroit News Managing Editor Gary Miles.

The Guild detailed our members’ long history of concessions and sacrifices during the time of severe financial crisis. We reminded them of the wage freezes and cuts, starting in 2009, that we took to help stabilize the company. We pointed out that while wages were reduced and frozen, the cost of living continued to rise and members paid more of the cost of health insurance and parking. There were massive layoffs, so employees had to do more while being paid less. The Guild explained that, in its view, the decade-long era of concessions is over. We represent dedicated and talented employees who not only do a great job on a daily basis, but also have personally sacrificed to help the company survive and thrive in a changing marketplace.

The company did not make specific proposals. But Gannett’s attorney asked questions and stated general positions the signaled a plan to attack key parts of our contracts. These included: The company prefers “merit pay” to across-the-board raises; why did we have NEHP / BCN insurance instead of the Gannett health plan; why is the company paying retiree health care stipends; arbitration of grievances is no longer feasible; the pension plan needs to be addressed. The company stated that seniority works against what is needed now: A new set of skills for newsrooms to thrive in the digital age.

We agreed to schedule more bargaining dates in February. Because the contracts expire on Feb. 23, we agreed to extend them on a month-to-month basis while bargaining continues.

Overall, this first bargaining session is about getting a general sense of each side’s interests. We know the company’s interest lies in saving money on your pay and benefits and having more control over all working conditions. We expect the company to present formal proposals asking for even more concessions.

Our choice will be to either fight back as a unified membership or continue down the path of concessions, even though the case for concessions no longer exists. The company will be watching in coming weeks, to see whether we will join together in this struggle.

Now is the time to step up, get involved and demonstrate that we deserve better. It is time that the company give back some of what it has taken and give employees the dignity and good contracts they deserve.

 

Bargaining Update: Bargaining starts January 8th, 9th                                    Jan. 3, 2019

Guild photo day

The Guild is scheduled to meet with representatives from Gannett and the Detroit Media Partnership on Tuesday, Jan. 8, and Wednesday, Jan. 9, to begin collective bargaining. As in the past, we will bargain jointly with the Detroit News, Free Press and Observer & Eccentric papers. The bargaining committee is chaired by our attorney, Duane Ice. The committee’s members are Stevie Blanchard (Administrative Officer), Lou Grieco (TNG Staff Rep), Charlie Ramirez (Detroit News reporter), Julie Altesleben (Detroit News designer) and Christine Ferretti (Detroit News reporter), Eric Lawrence (Free Press reporter), John Gallagher (Free Press reporter), Tanya Wildt-Galunas (Free Press web editor), David Veselenak (O&E Reporter) and David Ashenfelter (Retirees).

We anticipate a tough round of bargaining and need everyone to step up and fight for your rights. We are all too familiar with the endless cuts, the shrinking staff and growing workload for everyone. We know what we do is valuable and so does the company. It is easy to brag about great years and hard work, but it is time the company pays out more than just empty compliments on town hall meetings. We are asking for nothing less than a fair contract, one that shows Gannett values its workers and what they do for the company and the community, one that shows we are more than numbers on a spreadsheet cut at the end of every fiscal year.

Please join us on Tuesday, Jan. 8, in taking a stand and wearing your Guild T-shirt. We are all in this together and we must show the company we are united for a fair contract in 2019.