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PD Blues 

Reporters believe The Plain Dealer is trying to squeeze their union.

Is it just a human-resources guy getting weird, or the - opening shots in a labor war? - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Is it just a human-resources guy getting weird, or the opening shots in a labor war?
It was all very weird.

Reporters reserved a room at Plain Dealer headquarters for a lunchtime meeting with emissaries from the Beacon Journal. They arrived to hear news from Akron, where a strike loomed in the wake of acrid contract talks.

Employees commonly booked rooms at The PD's sleek new offices. These are places for Weight Watchers sessions and yoga classes. And for the first 45 minutes, they were fine accommodations for the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild Local 1, the nation's oldest reporters' union.

That's when Bill Calaiacovo noticed. He's director of labor relations, and he's apparently unaware that his employer is in the business of peddling free speech. Calaiacovo shouted that the meeting was "unauthorized." Arguing ensued. The head of security was called. Meeting disbanded.

It was a strange moment indeed. By day, PD reporters are charged with unveiling Cleveland. Yet they couldn't even talk freely in their own shop.

"I look at it personally as harassment -- at this union in particular," says Scott Stephens, the guild's regional vice president.

He has reason for concern. Six days earlier, Stephens sent out a mass e-mail soliciting support for Akron workers. Calaiacovo quickly responded with a warning letter. "At 10:48 a.m. today," he began, as if describing some grave, historic moment. He went on to chronicle Stephens' multiple violations of company e-mail policy, the text of which can best be condensed as "Harrumph, harrumph, harrumph." But the final sentence was quite clear: ". . . further activity as described above may result in discipline up to and including discharge."

It was a naked shot at the union, since the paper's e-mail system is used for everything from selling Girl Scout cookies to locating spare Tribe tickets. But Stephens, who speaks with the eminent reasonableness of public radio, understood the message: "I'm the first person threatened within the five years we've had the system."

One could chalk up the incidents to the bungling of Calaiacovo, who seems to suffer from that affliction so common to human-resource officers: a tenuous grasp of the "human" part. But many reporters saw these as the opening shots of a labor war destined for the paper.

Reporters are a terminally caustic breed, blessed with the ability to see the worst in everything, especially their workplace. (Professional oath: "We breathe, therefore we bitch.")

"Journalists are never happy," admits one PD vet. And much of that unhappiness stems from reporters' love-hate relationship with their union.

On the upside, five-year journeymen's wages start at $57,000 annually. If the benefit plan isn't quite Cadillac, it's certainly a very nice Buick. And once you're hired, you pretty much have a job for life.

But security breeds lethargy, and this has been The PD's curse for decades. When a sizable faction of workers arrive each day, they must choose whether to shop, golf, or actually work. It's a scarcity of ambition that infects the ranks. Talk to reporters, and they'll inevitably use phrases like "golden handcuffs" and the "Morphine Factory" to describe their work. The pay's too good to leave, and the job's too frustrating to love.

Add to it the importing of southern managers, who seem befuddled by the immovable object that is organized labor, Cleveland-style, and the recipe produces daily helpings of resentment.

Yet it wasn't Calaiacovo's ham-fisted bumbling that pushed reporters to the edge. It was the threatened collapse of their health fund.

Like most businesses, The Plain Dealer has fallen victim to the upside-down nature of modern health care. The legislature keeps squawking about malpractice suits, even though jury awards are declining. The Ohio State Medical Association cries about doctors fleeing the state's high malpractice premiums, though the number of doctors is rising. And since legislators from Columbus to Washington call home the brothel of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries -- five-time winners of the Carlo Gambino Award for the Advancement of Racketeering -- we must first ship drugs to Canada, then buy them back, since the Canadian government is the only one concerned with consumer protection.

Weirdly enough, it all adds up to towering medical costs. And the union's medical fund, jointly administered with management, cannot keep up.

So reporters are being asked to use future raises to stabilize the fund -- while receiving fewer benefits. Fine, they say, but the company should contribute too. The company says no.

This wouldn't be earth-shattering, except that reporters believe the company readily covered management's health fund. (Calaiacovo did not respond to interview requests.)

"The membership feels really screwed over," says one reporter. "They shored up the management fund without even blinking -- and refuse to consider doing anything like that for the people who put out the paper. The people here are asking, 'Why am I coming to work if I'm not protected?'"

Others take a less contentious view, noting that benefits will remain as good as or better than most. Moreover, the company is merely doing what businesses do, which is to give as little as possible. "The man has bargained a contract and is following that contract," says another reporter. "This is not one of those times where I say the company is completely fucking us over."

Yet there's no salve for a journalist scorned. The Calaiacovo incident, coupled with tightened rules for e-mail use, parking, and working on days off, leads many to believe that The PD is trying to squeeze its unions. It wouldn't be the first time. Knight-Ridder, the parent company of the Beacon Journal, has cut funding so sharply that the former Pulitzer-winning paper now resembles a newsletter. Moreover, daily papers are an old-line industry, not unlike big steel. They've suffered circulation declines for nearly 30 years, yet investors keep demanding higher profits. Something's gotta give.

Plain Dealer reporters seem intent to fight now, before they find unwanted roles in Akron: The Sequel.

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