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Newspaper union votes to authorize strike preparations

Members of the largest union representing employees at The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and voted Wednesday evening to authorize strike preparations as ongoing contract negotiations have yielded no breakthroughs.

Members of the largest union representing employees at The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and voted Wednesday evening to authorize strike preparations as ongoing contract negotiations have yielded no breakthroughs.

The vote - 263-19 in the main unit and 24-7 in the unit representing employees - authorized the executive board of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia to plan for a strike by 445 employees at the city's two largest newspapers and their companion website.

The union hopes the vote "sends an important message to the company that we are not fooling around," said Howard Gensler, Guild president.

Philadelphia Media Network, which operates all three news outlets, has stated that in the event of a strike, it will continue publication.

In a statement released after the vote was tallied, PMN spokeswoman Amy Buckman said: "Our negotiators remain hopeful that, with the assistance of the federal mediator, continued talks will result in an agreement before the contract extension expires on June 27, 2015, and that the Guild will soon join the 12 other PMN unions who have reached or are very close to reaching contract agreements.

"Tonight's vote does not change PMN's commitment to operate both digitally and in print in the event of a strike, so that we can continue to serve our readers, subscribers, advertisers, and employees, and so that we can best protect the long-term future of our company."

John Laigaie, president of Teamsters Local 628, said Wednesday that his members would stay on the job in the event of a Guild strike.

His local, with 325 members, including drivers, building services workers, and security guards, must abide by its agreement with the company, he said. "Once that paper's printed, our drivers must deliver it," Laigaie said.

"Hopefully they'll be able to find a settlement," he said of the Guild and the company.

The Guild's contract expired in February. A federal mediator has been involved in bargaining sessions since April.

The company, owned by philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, and the union have been unable to reach an agreement on three key issues: health-care costs, seniority protection, and merging employees into the main union unit.

In an e-mail to employees Tuesday, Keith Black, PMN vice president of human relations, restated the company's intention to operate through a strike.

"While we are grateful for and appreciative of the excellent work of our journalists and staff, and the importance of their content, we are trying very hard to create a business model that is economically sustainable and which provides us with the flexibility to overcome the obstacles and seize the opportunities that we continue to face in this increasingly challenging industry," Black wrote.

In response, the union e-mailed its members, saying, "We've lost half our membership over the past 15 years. We've given up sick days, daily overtime, and salary. When will the company understand the harsh economic realities facing its employees?"

Stan Wischnowski, PMN vice president of news operations, said Wednesday night: "While we are hopeful we can come to an agreement that is fair and equitable for both sides, we can't ignore the economic realities we're facing. All this requires making difficult choices, many of them unpopular but necessary to ensure sustainability, staffing flexibility, and economic viability."

The union contends that the health and welfare fund, which pays health-care costs for members, is facing a $2.8 million shortfall in the coming year, and that the company has offered to increase its contribution by only $500,000. The company's current annual contribution is $2.9 million; employees contribute $1.1 million annually in paycheck deductions.

If employees had to make up the difference, it would cost them an additional $60 to $150 a week starting sometime in the next six months, according to the union. Those costs are expected to increase in coming years.

The company and the union also have been unable to reach an agreement over seniority protection for members. Management wants more flexibility if it decides to lay off employees, regardless of how many years they have worked at the company. The union said it is open to saving younger workers, but with safeguards so older employees are not targeted.

Another key disagreement in negotiations has been whether to provide employees the same benefits as main unit employees. The company has offered to extend some of those benefits, but the union wants a full merger of the website's employees with the union's main unit.

Jonathan Lai, 25, an Inquirer reporter in South Jersey, attended the Guild meeting at the Loews Hotel in Center City. He said a new contract was important for him because he had made a commitment to the company and to the city, having bought a condominium in Kensington last year.

"I would like to make sure this institution is similarly committed to me," said Lai, who said he did not want to discuss how he voted.

He said the contract uncertainty was stressful.

"I don't think anyone enjoys sitting through the times we're sitting through and coming to a vote like this," he said.

Lai voted by e-mail earlier Wednesday but said he felt it was important to attend so he could ask questions of union leadership.