Five years of talks with ‘vulture capitalists’ yield pact for Tribune newspaper workers
Photo courtesy of The News Guild

CHICAGO—After five years of talks since they unionized with the Chicago News Guild, workers for the Tribune chain’s papers—except the Tribune itself—and the Tribune Content Agency, which syndicates columns and features, achieved their first-ever contract. It was ratified 77-4.

In a telephone interview, Dave Mulcahey, one of the TCA bargainers, said one reason bargaining took so long was the Tribune’s new owner, Alden Global Capital, did not know newspapers and came in with an attitude that began with actual wage cuts.

The new contract led one Guild member—not with the Tribune or its papers or the agency—to exult, “We beat Alden!”

Alden’s first wage proposal was a two-year freeze and elimination of the corporation’s 401(k) match of 4%. That was an effective cut, Mulcahey said.

“And they took a long time” in bargaining “because they didn’t want to settle the contract. For Alden, no contract meant no concessions.”

“In the beginning,” negotiations were “a difficult job because there had been a status quo for so long,” he added.

Alden, now the second largest owner of newspapers in the U.S., has a reputation for swooping in, buying up distressed papers, firing carloads of staffers, cutting coverage to the bone, selling off real estate, sometimes closing papers, and walking away with the profits for its private equity fund. Staffers at the Denver Post dubbed Alden “Vulture Capitalists.” The nickname has stuck.

That’s what Alden did with the main Chicago Tribune and its papers. Alden bought up the Tribune Co., including the historically anti-union Tribune itself, while the chain was still shaking off the effects of bankruptcy under real estate magnate Sam Zell. Alden shrank the staff, moved the remnant out of the historic Tribune Tower, and sold the building. It’s now fancy, expensive condos.

To defend themselves, their families, and their jobs, the remaining staffers unionized with the News Guild in Chicago, and for the papers elsewhere in the U.S., other Guild locals. Except for the main Chicago Tribune staff, they all again joined together for bargaining.

Once in bargaining, Mulcahey said, the Alden bargainers “were fighting for things like management rights and to put off and put off and put off and put off” talking about substantive issues, especially economic ones. Indeed, Alden did not start talking money until the Tribune staff staged a one-day strike in February. Staff at the other papers and the agency, Mulcahey said, staged their own job action: They either struck or worked to rule.

“We could tell from the very start that it would come down to action” by the workers to take their cause public, Mulcahey explained. The workers also helped their cause with good and detailed presentations and by bringing in outside observers to their bargaining sessions.

Once Alden moved off its pay cut demands, it offered 3% yearly raises in a two-year pact and kept the 401(k) match. That tracked what the workers privately set as their minimum so the bargainers decided to accept it, Mulcahey added.

One complication in the talks was the sheer number of papers involved. The joint bargaining table included the Tribune Content Agency and workers from papers in Chicago’s suburbs, stretching from Evanston, Glencoe, and Highland Park in the north to Elgin and Aurora in the west and the Southtown Economist on the South Side and nearby suburbs.

Papers outside Chicago whose workers were also at the table included the Hartford Courant, the Orlando Sentinel, its suburban papers, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and papers in Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay areas of Maryland and Virginia.

That meant getting everyone to work together, but they all benefited in the end, forging close ties which Mulcahey believes will continue—especially since the joint health care plan covering all the workers expires in eight months.

Health care is a mandatory subject of bargaining but “they {Alden) unilaterally decided to change the health care plan” while the union and management were in talks, and that violated labor law.

The Chicago Guild had to file several charges of labor law-breaking, formally called unfair labor practices, against Alden. “We had open-and-shut cases and used those as leverage” to get coverage from a union-crafted health plan, Mulcahey said.


Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.