On Tuesday, the Rockford Register Star’s executive editor, Mark Baldwin, sent an email to newsroom employees regarding the status quo provision under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and a situation that recently occurred at our bargaining table. Baldwin stated that “…the company has not made any unilateral changes to wages, hours or other terms and conditions of employment since this is required during the status quo period.”
However, Baldwin then mentioned a situation where management did want to unilaterally change something. In this case it was shifts – in fact, they wanted to put the two RR Star photographers on rotating shifts (work days for two months, then nights for two months, then days again…) and the union demanded to bargain over that (remember: terms and conditions are required to stay the same during bargaining unless both sides agree on the proposed change).
We met on May 27 but were unable to come to terms on that issue. However, it needs to be understood that bargaining is a process and going forward, opportunities remain for both sides to come to terms on that and other issues as well.
But back to the rotating shifts issue and Tuesday’s email. Management decided that since it cannot unilaterally change one aspect of scheduling — having one photographer work straight days and the other one work straight nights — it would make a more sweeping unilateral change. It decided it would no longer allow employees to adjust their schedule to get off at a particular time, even though it allowed it before the union representation vote and it continued after the vote. From Baldwin’s email: “…we must now unfortunately stop all schedule changes regardless of the reason. If employees need time off that previously would have been worked out with management via a simple schedule change they will now need to take a Personal Day or a Vacation Day instead.”
The company’s position seems odd to say the very least. First they admit that the status quo provision is in force and that they can’t make unilateral changes. Then, after they aren’t given what they want at the bargaining table, they make a different unilateral change. And it is a change – in his email, Baldwin admits that they’ve been allowing people to alter their shifts all this time but announces that they are putting an end to that immediately. Surely he understands that this is also a violation of the status quo provision. Once again, from Baldwin’s email, starting with the third sentence: “…the company has worked with employees as we did before the newsroom was organized to accommodate personal and operational circumstances whenever possible. This has always worked for us in the past.”
What, then, is the reason for this sudden change? Well, after initially stating that it was the two employees who the company first approached (even though the company is required to bargain changes with the union, not individual members) and then saying that those employees “refused to comply” it seems obvious that certain people are being set up as scape goats. Next came Baldwin’s ‘No more Mr. Nice Guy’ announcement regarding employees no longer being allowed to schedule time off and then this: “The company cannot operate with two sets of rules for employees. One set for those employees who understand the concept and need for flexibility and another for those who don’t.” (Translation: See what’s going on here? We LIKE you guys – you’re GOOD. But we now have to punish you because THOSE guys are BAD!). And, of course, management hopes that you can be as easily manipulated as they presume and that you’ll take it out on your coworkers, who they are attempting to isolate and marginalize.
A few things need to be stated here – clearly and unambiguously. For starters, your union is committed to getting a fair contract in Rockford; that’s why you reached out to us and it’s why you voted to join us. We understand that and every time we sit down at the bargaining table your priorities are foremost in our minds. We take negotiations seriously and we are committed to getting you the best contract possible. But there is a big difference in negotiating an agreement and just letting the other side dictate terms. And it appears that the company has decided that since they can’t dictate terms and get what they want immediately, then they’ll try to divide the membership to see if that works for them.
Next, it’s important to understand just how the bargaining process works. There are things GateHouse wants in this contract (and things we want, as well) and we’re willing to discuss them all. Depending on what’s offered in return, we might agree to those things – that’s how negotiations work. Currently management demands the right to move photographers around with impunity but such petulant behavior on its part begs the question of what’s next? And who’s next? What if next month it makes a move and goes after some detail or circumstance unique to sports reporters – or designers – are we going to see emails renouncing those same employees for not understanding “the concept and need for flexibility?” Will people be punished yet again while sports reporters – or designers – are held up and publicly scorned as the reason? Please don’t be fooled by this obvious attempt to divide the workforce and turn you against each other. Workers achieve fair contracts when they come together and stand shoulder-to-shoulder; hanging together is the only way to obtain a fair contract.
Finally, as I stated earlier, this action by management – regardless of how it attempts to frame it – constitutes a unilateral change in the terms and conditions of employment and it is illegal. The Guild, therefore, has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (the governmental body tasked with policing the NLRA) and we believe that, following an investigation, the Register Star will be ordered to rescind its new policy and return to the way things were. In the meantime, please continue to support one another and we will continue to work towards securing a contract with fair wages and working conditions and, as always, will keep you posted on events as they occur.
United Media Guild