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Negotiating News

Union reps at the Times Union are locked in painful contract talks with management

The clock for the Albany Newspaper Guild is ticking. The 75-year-old union shop, which represents 300 employees at the Times Union, is engaged in contract negotiations with the TU’s parent company, Hearst Corp. These negotiations are playing out during an unprecedented downturn in the newspaper industry and have been, according to guild President Tim O’Brien, unusually “hostile.”

Over the past week, Hearst, a privately held company, continued its drastic steps to reverse what it claims has been a nine-year run of money loss. On Tuesday, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a Hearst paper, ran its final print edition after 146 years, and laid off around 130 editorial staffers, switching to an online-only model manned by a 20-person newsroom. Also, over the weekend, Hearst finally broke the guild that represents the employees of its San Francisco Chronicle, after issuing the threat that it would lay off 50 percent more people than its standing offer of 150 if the union wouldn’t concede to the company’s demands. These demands included increased work weeks, decreased paid vacation, reduced company assistance in health-care costs, and one of the most contentious: stripping language from the union contract that protects seniority guidelines in layoffs.

In Albany, Hearst is seeking a similar concession from the guild, said O’Brien, and has threatened that if the union doesn’t agree to strike the strict seniority protections, among other things, that it will cancel the union’s contract on April 9.

O’Brien has called the threat “an unprecedented assault on [the] union.”

He pointed out that the union has made many attempts to find common ground with the company, offering concessions that include an across-the-board wage cut of 5 percent, reduced overtime, and a voluntary furlough of a week off without pay.

“It obviously wouldn’t save every job,” O’Brien said. “We know that. We know that we aren’t going to save every job. We were hoping to reduce the numbers.” Currently, he said, the company is talking about laying off 65 to 70 people. “That is up to 29 percent of our membership.”

Members of the union, O’Brien said, understand that in this economy layoffs are to be expected, but what the union doesn’t want to compromise on are the demands that it believes will damage the paper’s long-term ability to produce a quality product.

Again, he pointed to the company’s demand for concession in the seniority language.

“The elephant in the room here is favoritism,” he said.

“Are they going to target all the union activists?” O’Brien asked. “Are they going to look at how much you cost them in health care and say, ‘If we get rid of these five or six people, you can drive down insurance costs’?”

Another disconcerting concession that the management is seeking, said O’Brien, is to strip language that protects jobs from being outsourced.

Outsourcing is a growing trend in the newspaper industry, with some papers, including the Miami Herald, even outsourcing parts of its copy editing and layout to India.

The problems of outsourcing the copy editing are obvious, he said. “People who wouldn’t know if a street name was misspelled, or if a town name was misspelled. People who wouldn’t know how to spell Schaghticoke.”

While Hearst has not outlined specific plans for downsizing the newsroom through outsourcing, O’Brien has pressed the company to explain why it wants certain language removed from the contract, and the company has said only that it wants “flexibility.”

This aside, the guild faces a certain and dramatic loss of members, and the challenge of trying to operate in a company that no longer recognizes its bargaining power.

One newsroom source pointed out that the management is trying to claim that the guild is the problem: “It is not.”

If management is serious about negotiating a fair contract, the source said, than it could easily make cuts to its ranks, as well. “The ranks of management have just as many expendable people. If not on the basis of raw numbers, certainly relatively speaking on percentages.”

“Threatening to cancel the contract has riled people up in a way that they haven’t been riled up before,” said O’Brien, “and it forces us to do things, as you’ll see and hear about in coming days, that we had no intention to do.”

This week, the guild made clear its plan to answer the company’s combative stance by calling for a boycott of the TU’s advertisers. “It’s not that that is something we want to do,” said O’Brien, “but we need leverage, too.”

“O’Brien has brass balls,” the newsroom source said. “He is not giving in. But even if O’Brien negotiates a good deal, he is going to have to give way on the seniority issue.” The best O’Brien can possibly do, “the best he can hope for, is that the union only has to bear its proportionate share of the cuts.”

George Hearst, the publisher of the TU, did not respond to a request for interview.

The union will meet with the management on Friday.

—Chet Hardin

What a Week


Victims 101

College students make easy targets for rash of robberies in Pine Hills


It was a busy week for both partygoers and police following a number of robberies in the heavily student-populated Pine Hills neighborhood.

The five robberies, all of which involved victims in their early 20s and four of which took place after midnight, have some students concerned, but many say they aren’t going to cut back on their weekend plans.

“It’s not exactly comforting,” said Jessie Szary, a college student living on Ontario Street who was out celebrating Saturday. “But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to go out and have fun.”

The Albany Police Department arrested one suspect, Justin Adams, in relation to two muggings that took place at 4 AM on Morris Street. Adams reportedly told police that he was specifically going after students who were obviously intoxicated.

“It’s also warmer weather now, people are out,” said James Miller of the APD. “Particularly college students are going to be out in a much larger number.”

Miller also addressed the number of muggings where the victim had been drinking, saying that “somebody that’s visibly intoxicated, that puts them obviously in a much more vulnerable state.”

Miller said that police are looking into potential connections between the robberies, and responding by making adjustments in the way they police the neighborhood.

“Whenever you specifically see a pattern in a specific area, like Pine Hills where there’s been more than a couple of incidents, you’ll see an increase in police presence there,” Miller said.

The same pattern took place in the spring of 2008 after the mugging of two UAlbany students in the early hours of April 29 outside of Alumni Quad.

“It’s really nothing new,” said Stephen Stella, director of security at the College of Saint Rose, which is located in Pine Hills. “If you’re alone, you’re very vulnerable. If you’re in a physical condition where you’re not responsive to your environment, you’re at high risk.”

Saint Rose has responded to the recent robberies by sending out safety-alert e-mails to students, as well as increasing the security presence around campus. On Tuesday night they added extra neighborhood patrols to accommodate those who were out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

“We are also starting up the Albany Police Neighborhood Patrol, where the college contracts with the APD to provide extra patrols in the neighborhood,” Stella said. “It’s been a very effective tool for us.” The additional patrols from the APD are on foot until midnight, after which they patrol in vehicles.

Saint Rose, like many other colleges, also offers a security escort service, but some underage drinkers living on campus are hesitant to use the service out of fear of punishment from the college.

“There’s no hard and fast rule; it would depend on the situation. It is a policy violation at the college,” Stella said, regarding how the college handles such incidences. He advises students to use public transportation or a taxi, and to have a game plan.

Security officials from Saint Rose, the University Police at UAlbany and the APD all appear to work together closely when tackling the issue of safety in the Pine Hills neighborhood.

“We work with universities and colleges about stressing to students—particularly if they’re going to be out partying—not to consume too much alcohol, particularly late at night or to the point that they drop their inhibitions or put themselves in the position where they can become a victim,” Miller said.

Others feel that college students should take responsibility for keeping themselves out of dangerous situations. In response to an Albany Student Press blog post on the Times Union’s Web site about a robbery, one person commented saying that “crime isn’t the problem here, stupidity is. . . . How about not walking the streets with a big red target on your back or carrying a sign saying ‘Hey, I’m drunk and mom sent me 200 bucks yesterday, it’s in my pocket!’—at some point, these college kids (who are actually adults) will have to start taking some responsibility for their actions.”

According to Miller, the city of Albany has no public intoxication laws.

“There’s not any particular laws that way. Obviously if someone consumes too much alcohol and gets unruly they can be arrested for disorderly conduct, but not public intoxication,” Miller said, meaning that the police can make an arrest only if a person gets drunk enough to a be perpetrator, not a victim.

Christine Bouchard, vice president of UAlbany’s Division of Student Success, sent an e-mail to students over the weekend encouraging them to drink safely.

“Some of you will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this weekend,” the e-mail read. “This is a typical time for students to let their guards down regarding personal safety—either with too much drinking or travelling alone.”

The e-mail contained the same general safety tips offered by other colleges and police, such as walking in groups and being aware of your surroundings. However, these common-sense tips can easily be forgotten after a night at one of the 13 bars in a four-block radius of Alumni Quad.

—Cecelia Martinez

Loose Ends

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