The largest union representing workers at the parent company of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and has agreed to begin early bargaining on a new contract as management of the media company continues to seek ways to cut expenses.

The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia told its members Thursday that it agreed to resume bargaining with Interstate General Media L.L.C. on Friday afternoon, but stressed that should talks break down, the 550 members it represents would be protected under the current contract, which expires in October.

Guild officers indicated that the move was unusual.

The union said last week that the company had threatened to liquidate or sell assets if it did not reach new contracts with all its unions by Friday. The Guild told its members on Jan. 10 that management was seeking to cut $8 million in wages and benefits from the contract. Labor representatives indicated Thursday that management no longer insisted on that amount but had not specified a new figure.

Also Thursday, the union said the deadline for its members - employees in the newsrooms and the advertising, circulation, and finance departments - to consider applying for voluntary buyouts or reduced four-day workweeks had been extended to next Friday from this Friday.

According to the Guild, nine members have applied for buyouts and six for reduced workweeks.

Interstate General chief executive Robert J. Hall said the Guild's action showed that its leaders recognized how critical the financial situation of the company was.

"While it was an unusual, and I am sure difficult, decision for the Guild, it is really a very important step they are making by reopening the contract," Hall said.

In a separate cost-cutting move, the company announced that it would close Philly Direct, an outbound-call center in Hatboro that focused on newspaper subscriptions, as of Friday. Two sources indicated that about 50 people work for Philly Direct.

Contracts covering employees represented by 10 other unions expired in October. Interstate General has reached tentative agreements on new contracts with nearly all of them, according to several labor representatives.

Hall noted that Interstate General and its other unions had gone through "hard negotiations" to reach agreements that could help turn around a company that, he said, is losing money every week. "The financial condition is so dire that without these concessions, these papers would not survive," he said.

The leadership of Teamsters Local 628 reached a tentative agreement with Interstate General management this week. Local president John P. Laigaie declined to specify what concessions were in the agreement, citing the need to bring it before his 340 members, who work as newspaper delivery drivers, security guards, building-services personnel, and in other jobs.

Expressing confidence in the current ownership group, which bought the media properties in April, Laigaie said: "We're hoping they can find a way to bring more revenue into this place so that these newspapers continue to exist."

Contact Mike Armstrong

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