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Waiting it out: Experts weigh in on Post-Gazette strike as it stretches into its sixth month

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Experts say that — despite a National Labor Relations Board ruling — the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's owners could benefit from prolonging the work stoppage even further.

As a kid, Jim “Hutchie” VanLandingham delivered papers for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He went on to start as a mailer at the company in 1994, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

VanLandingham recalled how his grandfather had to dig his way out of his house during a snowstorm in 1940 in order to get to the Post-Gazette’s former building downtown and distribute the latest issue.

“This is the type of loyal service we've given this company. And this is the thanks they give us,” said VanLandingham, now six months on strike.

On Oct. 6, VanLandingham went on strike as part of the mailers union alongside three other units representing the paper’s production, distribution and advertising employees. According to union representatives, union members lost their health insurance on Oct. 1 after Block Communications Inc. — which owns the paper — refused to pay an additional $19 per employee per week required to maintain their existing coverage.

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The paper’s management said it offered the unions several options “that would ensure the continuation of the affected union employees' healthcare,” but union members said it would come at a much higher cost to workers.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents the paper’s newsroom workers, joined the picket line a few weeks later.

But these six months on strike are part of a fight that’s been ongoing for six years. The paper’s unions have been without a contract since March 31, 2017, when the last bargaining agreement expired without a successor in place. And experts who spoke with WESA on the matter said that — despite a National Labor Relations Board ruling that ordered newspaper management to bargain with unionized employees — the paper’s owners could benefit from prolonging the work stoppage even further.

Striking workers and supporters marked the six years without a contract by throwing a block party outside the home of Post-Gazette publisher and co-owner J.R. Block on April 1. Participants handed out food, lemonade and lawn signs condemning the paper’s bargaining tactics.

Security guards posted around the perimeter of Block’s home eyed the protesters throughout the event. VanLandingham said it’s disappointing his employer has opted to pay for security rather than put money toward meeting the unions’ demands.

“We thought for sure it would be just like any other strike. We go out for a couple of months, we'd get our point across, they get their point across,” VanLandingham said. “We end up on the negotiating line, and then after that, a lot of stuff would have been gone through and some agreement would have come back into place, just like they did back in ‘92. But it hasn’t happened. They won’t budge.”

Jim “Hutchie” VanLandingham is one of the dozens of workers who remain on strike at the Post-Gazette, six months after five of the paper's unions first walked out. VanLandingham became a mailer at the company in 1994, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who both worked at the paper.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Jim “Hutchie” VanLandingham is one of the dozens of workers who remain on strike at the Post-Gazette, six months after five of the paper's unions first walked out. VanLandingham became a mailer at the company in 1994, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who both worked at the paper.

'Forcing the union to bargain against itself'

After failing to reach an agreement in 2020, the paper declared an impasse in negotiations, and with it imposed “unlawful, unilateral changes” on union members, according to a ruling handed down by the National Labor Relations Board in January.

The decision, appealed by the paper last month, ordered the owners to “make its employees whole” for the loss of earnings and benefits that resulted from the 2020 alterations, including changes to union members’ health insurance benefits.

Union representatives say, if enforced, that could cost the paper more than $4 million in restitution. But the company may see the potential punishment for violating the law as less costly than implementing the unions’ long-term demands, said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“In America, we have pretty weak labor laws and the punishments are pretty mild, all things considered,” he said “Given that, employers can wait it out.”

While the parties have met for closed-door negotiations on several occasions in recent months, Zack Tanner, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said that, each time the two sides have met, the paper brought terms identical to the ones unilaterally implemented in 2020 and has refused to move.

“We even proposed some pretty major concessions on the table, and the company rejected them all,” Tanner said after a bargaining session last November.

A spokesperson for the Post-Gazette declined to provide further information about its bargaining proposals, and multiple calls to the paper’s attorney, Richard Lowe, were not returned.

But Chris Rhomberg, author of “The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor,” said the tactic Tanner described is a familiar one in collective bargaining across the industry.

Rhomberg, a professor at Fordham University, said, by refusing to budge, the company is putting pressure on the union to make concessions.

“The union proposes things, and then the company says they just can't economically agree to that, but doesn't counterpropose,” Rhomberg said. “It's forcing the union to bargain against itself.”

The present negotiations follow multiple rounds of concessions on the part of the unions, made to help the paper regain its financial footing amid the rise of the internet and decline of print readership. Since 2004, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Unity Council — which collectively bargains wages and health care across units — has given up tens of millions of dollars in concessions, including pension freezes, a 10% diversion of wages to pay for health care, and roughly 150 jobs cut.

According to Howard Stanger, who detailed this history in the 2013 anthology “Collective Bargaining Under Duress,” much of the blow hit the Teamsters Union, which represents the paper’s drivers and those in the circulation department.

“You still have a backdrop of collective bargaining that's been concessionary, [with] in many cases no raises for a decade or more,” said Stanger, a professor of business management at Canisius College in Buffalo.

Stanger said regaining those losses would be a steep hill for the unions to climb nearly two decades later, and tougher still for units representing the paper’s teamsters, pressmen and other craft workers.

With newspapers nationwide cutting back on print production and distribution in favor of a digital-first model, he said trade unions don’t have as much leverage in the industry as they once did.

The Post-Gazette scaled back its daily print production to five days a week in 2018, and then again to three days in 2019. Distribution was reduced to the current two-day schedule in 2021 as part of a decision to deliver news content exclusively online, according to an internal letter obtained by the Tribune-Review.

The newspaper industry, on the whole, lost more than 71% of its workforce — or 200,000 people — between 2006 and 2021. Distribution and production were among the departments that faced the harshest cuts, with more than 81,500 jobs either outsourced or cut — an 83% reduction.

Stanger speculated the ongoing strike could inadvertently lead to an acceleration of that trend as BCI looks at ways to resolve the dispute.

“It seems to me, when you get into this type of situation, that the trend toward digital is going to accelerate because then you [wouldn’t] have the labor problem anymore,” he said.

Waiting until it dies down?

BCI, a conglomerate based in Toledo and a venture of the Block family, has owned the paper since 1927.

When reached for comment regarding the strike by phone, Allan Block, BCI’s chairman and CEO, immediately hung up. J.R. Block, his twin brother, said he was not at liberty to discuss the ongoing labor conflict.

Still, the proposals brought to the table by BCI, as described by union representatives, don’t necessarily demonstrate the company’s willingness to have the units there moving forward, said Bruno.

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The Nashville-based firm King and Ballow, which has long represented media organizations in labor disputes with employees, is representing the Post-Gazette in its negotiations.

Experts say the late founding partner Bob Ballow was known for making demands unions cannot agree to without giving away some of their power to management, as noted in the NLRB’s ruling.

“When you make that kind of a proposal to your employees, you're really signaling to them that you don't want them there,” Bruno added. “That’s going to trigger the opposite reaction.”

As of early April, roughly 40 newsroom employees remained on strike, in addition to 60 members of the paper’s four craft unions.

With around 55 newsroom workers in the office, experts say the paper is able to bide its time, both in terms of the strike and bargaining a new union contract.

Stanger said the same thing is happening in other industries. At Starbucks, for instance, a first union contract is not yet in sight, even as nearly 300 corporate-owned locations — including 12 stores in Pittsburgh — have successfully voted to unionize over the last 18 months.

Representatives with Pittsburgh Starbucks Workers United said seven of those stores have attempted to bargain with the company, but company representatives either refused to show up or walked out of the room within 10 minutes of arriving.

Stanger said federal labor law incentivizes employers, whether the Post-Gazette or Starbucks, to drag out the organizing and bargaining process.

“The hope [for management] is that… whatever solidarity there is will break over time; that it's hard to keep workers on strike,” Stanger said. “So, eventually they're going to come back, or eventually people are going to cross the picket line, and then there'll be infighting among the employees.”

Tanner said that has played out at the paper, where more than half of the newsroom either never joined the picket line or returned to work as a result of the financial and mental strain caused by striking.

“I think the Post-Gazette has run a master class in [dividing its employees],” Tanner added. “It's an uphill battle to fight, but I think the people that are standing together on the picket line certainly understand the value of it and understand the value of collective bargaining and coming together to make sure that these terms stay good and that the Post-Gazette stays a solid place to work.”

For reporter Andrew Goldstein, who began as an intern at the Post-Gazette in 2014 and landed a role as a full-time staffer in 2015, the strike has consumed much of his time over the last six months.

But his work for the unions’ online strike publication, the Pittsburgh Union Progress, doesn’t come with a paycheck. Some days, he said, it’s hard to stay motivated.

“It's definitely challenging for me. I know it's challenging for other people,” Goldstein said. “And, yes, it makes the work harder sometimes, but — at the same time — doing it makes me want to work harder because I want to do what I can to get this strike over with and to make sure our people are getting taken care of.”

Goldstein has watched several of his striking colleagues leave for other jobs outside of Pittsburgh, but still, at 30, he said he plans to work for the Post-Gazette for the rest of his career. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh and is dedicated to covering his community.

But he adds that, without a contract, the company is making it difficult for him to do so.

“I'm just so sad for Pittsburgh because this city deserves so much better. I know that, the folks [supporting us] out here know that, and the folks on strike with me know that,” he said. “But the Blocks just don't seem to care, and I just don't understand why.”

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.