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Post-Gazette strike negotiations continue, this time with health care on the table

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Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Members of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents the newsroom’s union, voted 38-36 to authorize an unfair labor practice strike on Oct. 17.

Striking workers and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette management returned to the bargaining table Tuesday. Union members said the paper's management rejected their health care-related concessions, leading to yet another stalemate.

The talks at the Omni William Penn Hotel marked the first contract negotiating session held between the two parties since Nov. 18. Those discussions ended in gridlock after the company rejected all of the newspaper guild’s proposals, according to union members.

Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh President Zack Tanner said the union would accept the company’s existing health insurance plan and some of the company's cost-sharing proposals—but with limits on how much the company can raise future costs. Tanner said the company rejected that request on the basis that they were economic concessions that they were not willing to make, and would not offer a counterproposal.

"It's another frustrating day of the Guild making concessions, wanting to get back to the work and the company not acknowledging that—not acknowledging the strike and not acknowledging that the health care premiums and health care costs are really out of control," Tanner said Tuesday evening. "There's no movement from the company at all [from] their position on health care."

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In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said, although some progress was made to bring the union’s proposal into compliance with IRS regulations, no agreement was reached. The spokesperson did not elaborate on the regulatory requirements alluded to in the statement.

Members of the Newspaper Guild, which represents the newsroom’s union, voted 38-36 to authorize an unfair labor practice strike on Oct. 17. According to the Guild, the Post-Gazette “illegally and unilaterally imposed new working conditions on the journalists of the Newspaper Guild,” cut their wages and senior employees’ vacation time.

The union also said management tried to place the employees on the company health insurance plan, which offered less coverage at a higher price, rather than accept the union-negotiated health insurance plan from their last union contract. That agreement expired in 2017. A new bargaining agreement was not reached afterward, and union members have operated without one since.

Tanner said the Guild would accept the company health insurance—the same one they say was already forced upon them—as part of a new contract as long as there are caps on premiums and reassurances regarding out-of-pocket costs.

According to Tanner, the company made no movement on the issue and no other topics were discussed.

Health care was also one of the main reasons members of the paper’s production and design union walked off the job two months ago. 60 striking employees in the Communication Workers of America went on strike Oct. 6, including those responsible for printing, designing, distributing and advertising sales. The bargaining committee present Tuesday includes members of both units.

In the weeks since the strikes began, the Post-Gazette has released job postings for several positions, including a full-time investigative reporter, photographer and general assignment reporter. According to the union, some of them are held by striking workers or striking Guild members who have since left the paper for other positions.

According to Tanner, six workers who joined the strike have since left the Post-Gazette for other jobs. A spokesperson from the paper declined to comment on the job listings.

Since both unions voted to authorize unfair labor practice strikes, according to the National Labor Relations Board, such strikers cannot be discharged from their positions nor permanently replaced.

Unless there was serious misconduct among striking employees, workers are entitled to have their jobs back at the end of the work stoppage—even if employees hired to do their work have to be discharged.

The parties will meet again on Dec. 20.

In the meantime, the union is operating out of an office inside the United Steelworkers Building in Downtown Pittsburgh. According to the union’s strike publication, Pittsburgh Union Progress, the steelworkers’ union gave the paper’s striking workers free access to an office previously used by Working America, the political organizing arm of AFL-CIO.

The Newspaper Guild will use the space as its organizing headquarters and a newsroom for its publication, which documents both local news and strike-related developments.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.