Buffalo News employees may reach new contract agreement ‘soon,’ but won’t be ‘bullied into' bad deal
The president of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild says the union may soon reach a new contract agreement with The Buffalo News’ ownership, but won’t be “bullied into” a bad deal just because their current agreement expires this weekend.
Sandra Tan, a News reporter and president of the Guild representing approximately 150 News employees, spoke to WBFO Wednesday about the Guild’s ongoing contract negotiations with Lee Enterprises, which purchased the News last year.
The Guild for the last two weeks has been on a byline strike, withholding their names from their stories and photos, in protest of Lee’s proposals. Those proposals include outsourcing page design work and freezing the Guild’s pension fund.
Lee has not returned a request for comment.
The Guild’s current contract with Lee expires Saturday, setting up a crucial day of negotiations on Friday.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tom Dinki: Sandra, when we last spoke two weeks ago, the Guild was speaking out against some of Lee Enterprises’ contract proposals, like outsourcing design work. You guys announced a byline strike and a community petition. What has happened since then?
Sandra Tan: Well, we're pleased to say that we have gotten more than 1,700 signatures from the community, from people who are really concerned about the impact that Lee Enterprises’ proposals could have. And we delivered those petitions to both Buffalo News executives and Lee Enterprises executives [Tuesday]. The issue of the outsourcing of our page designers is still a front burner issue. The company is still very adamant that they want the right to get rid of our local award-winning design team. One of the things that the company has proposed is, ‘Well, we might continue to employ those designers, but they will be working for a midwest hub. They will be working on a number of different papers, not just The Buffalo News. They will not receive the same union benefits or protections that they have now because their hubs are all non-union shops.’ So we are very concerned about the loss of our award-winning design team that still remains an outstanding issue.
TD: And I think for a few days after the byline strike began in the print paper, bylines were still appearing on articles on the website. It looks like you've since come to an agreement with management to remove bylines from the website as well. Can you just explain what happened there?
ST: Yes. The company had initially said that we didn't have any right to have our names and credit lines withheld from the journalism that we produced for the website. We only had the ability to remove it from the print paper. We pointed out to them that in the past, anytime a reporter has had a problem with the way a story has been changed or edited by an editor, that their byline was removed both online and in print. So the company said they would honor the byline strike both online and in print. So we are happy about that.
TD: So the Guild's current contract with the News expires this Saturday. I would imagine the next couple days are going to be really important for negotiating. Give us a sense of what the next couple days are going to look like.
ST: Well we negotiate with the company again on Friday. We have actually managed to settle a number of outstanding issues. So the main issues that remain before us is, again, what will happen to our page designers. And they want to freeze and outsource our pension to prop up their underfunded frozen pensions that Lee Enterprises already owns.
TD: If the Guild does not come to an agreement with the News by the time the contract expires this Saturday, what happens?
ST: We have a clause in our contract that says that as long as we are continuing to negotiate in good faith, the terms and provisions of our contract continue. And quite frankly, we don't have a whole lot of more issues to negotiate over. So we are cautiously hopeful that we might be able to come to terms with the company soon. But we also don't intend to be bullied into accepting a really poor proposal from the company just for the sake of meeting a certain deadline.
TD: What would you say to someone who says, ‘The print industry is struggling across the country. It only makes sense that Lee Enterprises would want to cut costs and be more efficient.’ What would your response be to that?
ST: Our response would be, we understand that. We do 100% totally get that. We have always been willing to come to the table to meet with news management to find ways to save money. We let 18 members of our journalism staff in the newsroom go in 2018. We believe we have made many, many concessions and compromises that will allow the company to save money, but the company just doesn’t feel that that’s enough. Some people look at what's going on between The Buffalo News and The Buffalo Newspaper Guild and Lee Enterprises as an internal labor dispute. But what people need to know is The Buffalo News serves tens of thousands of readers everyday. This is a community issue. Every person who reads The Buffalo News, who cares about local journalism, has a stake in this fight. And that's why we are asking every person in the community who values The Buffalo News to stand up and say something and we hope they will.