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Newspaper Guild, Philadelphia Media Network reach tentative contract pact

Just a week after Newspaper Guild members at the Inquirer, Daily News, and rejected a contract offer that would have eliminated seniority protections in the event of layoffs, union officials on Thursday announced a tentative agreement with Philadelphia Media Network on a near-identical contract offer.

The new proposal, which the rank and file are scheduled to vote on next week, would not increase the cost of  health benefits, a victory for a union with a rapidly dwindling Health and Welfare Fund that helps keep members' costs low.

But the offer would also make length of service just one of four primary factors in deciding who stays if the company resorts to layoffs, a major change to a stalwart principle for the Guild. The other factors would be performance, qualifications, and skills.

The new proposal doubles the signing bonus for members to $1,000. But like the last offer, it contains no wage increases. And, it has financial penalties for the company if someone is laid off outside of the typical seniority process.

Guild president Howard Gensler said the union — which declined to endorse the last contract offer — decided to support this proposal because members' health-care costs would have skyrocketed without a new deal. The current contract is set to expire in July.

"I think we did the best we could under trying circumstances," Gensler said.

PMN publisher Terry Egger said: "I'm pleased that both sides got back to the table."

Both sides agreed that the major issues in the negotiations, which began in January, were health-care costs and seniority.

Company officials pressed for a contract that eliminated seniority protections, saying that seniority restricted the company's flexibility when making staffing decisions.

The change, said Egger, "at least gives the company, and our future, the flexibility to make sure that if you have to make tough decisions, that you have more criteria than a single criterion."

If ratified, the contract would guarantee no layoffs for at least six months. That guarantee would extend until the end of 2017 if at least 10 members accept a buyout offer by May, officials said.

Gensler described the declining fortunes for seniority consideration in one word: "bad."

But he also said it was clear the company "was not going to budge on this issue," and the union — the company's largest  — is facing the prospect of running out of money for its Health and Welfare Fund. If that happened, costs for members would likely increase significantly.

This contract offer would place Guild members in the more advantageous Teamsters Vicinity Fund at the same monthly premium costs they currently pay.

The union's 380 members will be able to vote on the deal on April 5 and 6, officials said. Last week, the offer was voted down by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio.