The van painted with skunk stripes still sits in the parking lot of the Labor Council building in Mission Valley. “Something stinks at the U-T ,” it says on one side, the rallying slogan for the ugly, nine-year labor dispute between the Union-Tribune and its press workers that was finally settled this past fall. Apparently, the Labor Council plans to repaint the van, but till then it's used for the practical purpose of transportation rather than a jab at San Diego's daily paper-of-record.
Last September, Labor Council president Jerry Butkiewicz, along with a motley delegate of religious folks and one very prominent advertiser, did in two meetings what the Graphics Communications International Union (GCIU) couldn't do in 80-settle the almost decade-long contract dispute between press workers and upper management.
Unhappy with downsizing, cutbacks in overtime pay, rising health plan costs and what they felt was an overall lack of respect from management, GCIU members refused to sign the contract being offered them. The U-T , meanwhile, put up with the omnipresent skunk mobile and a boycott campaign that resulted in a reported cancellation of 45,000 subscriptions.
As GCIU representative Jack Finneran, who participated in negotiations from beginning to end, explained. “We felt that [U-T management] didn't respect us as workers. I had workers coming to me saying, ‘We haven't had a raise in seven, eight years; I'm losing my house; I have to move into an apartment with my family; this is not the way this is supposed to be.'
“On the company's side,” said Finneran, “they were saying our circulation's down 30,000 to 40,000 copies a day, we're losing millions of dollars and it's this damn union's fault.”
Last Thursday evening Butkiewicz, Finneran and Rabbi Laurie Coskey and the Rev. Robert Ard of the Interfaith Coalition on Worker Justice (ICWJ)-a multi-denominational group of clergy that advocates for worker rights-gave a brief “here's how we did it” talk to the San Diego chapter of the Industrial Relations Research Association, a national organization that studies workplace interaction.
GCIU representatives, worn down by unsuccessful negotiations, attended an ICWJ meeting where, as Coskey put it, they kind of just fell apart-the stress of the protracted dispute had become too much to handle.
ICWJ is never a group to turn down a good fight, so Coskey put in a call to U-T higher-ups. “I asked if they'd be willing to meet with a delegation of rabbis, priests and ministers,” she said.
“Absolutely not,” was the reply.
“I asked if they'd be willing to meet with Jerry Butkiewicz,” Coskey continued, knowing full well that the pleasantly abrasive Butkiewicz wouldn't be welcome into a union-wary arena. The response was the same-“Absolutely not.”
Figuring she had nothing to lose, Coskey pushed on. “I asked him, ‘Will you accept bitter herbs?'” (ICWJ is known to offer a plate of the stuff to management whose actions don't jibe with workers' sense of what's fair.)
The response was again the same, so Coskey and company-including nine nuns in full garb-showed up with, as she put it, “the ugliest tray of bitter herbs that you've seen.” The U-T called the police and some tow trucks to chase the group away-nuns, herbs and all.
Butkiewicz, however, came up with his own form of bitter herbs-one of the U-T's biggest advertisers, Steve Cushman, president of Cush Automotive Group, who said he was willing to take a seat at the negotiating table. “I knew we were missing a piece of the puzzle,” said Butkiewicz. “The community support was there. GCIU had authorized us to [negotiate for them].” What was missing was the sway a major advertiser holds with a paper. “Fourteen pages on Sunday,” Butkiewicz pointed out. “That's a lot of damn authority.”
Still, Coskey said, at first U-T management thought they were kidding-it's unprecedented for a union to send clergy to negotiate on their behalf. “They kept looking for someone else to come into the room,” she added. “It took four hours just to establish credibility,” said Ard.
The first meeting then became less about negotiating and more about unloading 10 years of frustration. That meeting lasted eight hours.
“Clergy are used to dealing with acrimony in families,” Coskey said, “but what was astounding to me was the amount of baggage brought into the room.... It was as if there had been a terrible, horrible rift in a family.”
“We kept it not so much about the economics, but about people,” said Ard of the renewed negotiating process. “That first meeting led to another meeting and we got our settlement.”
Now, Finneran said, his workers have an extra $100 a week in their pockets and affordable health insurance. But, he added, “I don't want to see any company go through what we did.”
One person in the audience asked Ard if he thought that sort of humanitarian-centered negotiating would set a precedent for other problematic union-management talks.
“I would hope that this would become not so much a precedent but a pattern where we can sit and talk and not try to take advantage of one another but do that which is right.
“To me,” he continued, “negotiating as I saw it is a game and it's a game that does not necessarily focus on the well-being of individuals. It's like a boxing match-there's jabs offered and this dance you go through, and I suppose your worth is how well you dance.... I am really concerned about the dance that seems to be necessary in these things but is really, to me, a waste of time. You offer things you know that the other side is going to turn down. Why go through that? You ask for more than you really want; you've got something else you'll accept. Let's deal with that initially.”