News issues major proposals as contract talks begin

May 16, 2016 — The Buffalo News last week issued only four bargaining proposals as contract talks started with the Guild. But they are very big, difficult proposals that target severance pay, health insurance, the trial period in the newsroom and the existence of the Classified Department.

“We are looking at ways to better the business in the next five years, at ways of increasing revenue. We have not been successful at that so far this year,” Joseph Giglia, vice president of human resources and general counsel, said in introductory remarks.

News management expressed a willingness to consider wage increases.

“We are inviting you to propose it. If we get some balance in this, we are not averse to a wage increase,” he said.

But it won’t be easy. Among other concerns, the News offered its proposals as an all-or-nothing package in which it wants agreement on every item.

Here are the key issues from the News:

Classified Department: The News wants to eliminate the Classified Department and outsource its ad sales work to Media Sales Plus Inc., a Williamsville company that has similar arrangements with other newspapers. The action would leave nine full-time and four part-time Guild members without jobs.

The News also wants the Guild to agree that the Guild employees who lose their jobs can’t bump a less-senior Guild member with similar skills elsewhere at the newspaper.

Company officials said the benefit of the outsourcing is in increased revenue from the multi-year Media Sales Plus deal and not in cost savings from eliminating employees.

Health insurance: In 2016, the contract obligated the News to provide Guild members with enough credits — $6,986 for single coverage and $19,350 for family — to purchase the “base option” 20/20 health plan.

The most significant change proposed by The News is to freeze the Guild health credits at the 2016 level. As premiums increase each year, the News proposes that Guild members pay the difference in cost until their share of the premium reaches 30 percent.

“The intent is to change to get to a more cost-sharing structure. We’re not willing to continue fully funded health insurance,” Giglia said.

The News also wants to rename its high-deductible health plan the “base option” and offer a one-time payment of $1,500 for single coverage and $3,000 for family coverage in a health savings account to help pay the deductible, which currently stands at $1,300 and $2,600 a year for single or family. After employees spend to the deductible – with some preventive services being free — they pay 20 percent of medical costs.

The high-deductible plan is the least-expensive health insurance option offered, and this kind of insurance is typically paired with a tax-advantaged health savings account. The account is designed to help people save money to pay the deductible and out-of-pocket expenses associated with a high-deductible health plan.

The News said it is continuing to investigate self-funded health insurance. However, self-funding would not alter the structural changes proposed by the company.

Local meetings, bargaining information

The Guild will conduct local meetings at 1 and 5 p.m. Wednesday in the News auditorium. We’ll discuss bargaining in addition to regular Guild business, with pizza served at 1 p.m. and cookies at 5 p.m. The early meeting was originally scheduled for noon but changed to accommodate employees participating in the News fitness walk.

Probation: The News proposes that Editorial employees hired after Jan. 1, 2017, have a trial period of five years.

Currently, the trial period for all Guild employees is six months, although the contract allows for extensions by mutual agreement.

News management said it wants to hire more reporters but is reluctant to do so because it views six months, even with an extension, as insufficient in some cases to determine if a new hire will work out long term.

The News also said it needs flexibility to try new newsroom initiatives and, if the initiatives don’t work, discharge the people involved if their skills are no longer needed.

Management offered a few examples:

— The News says it wants to attract new, younger readers, such as millennials, the generation coming into adulthood in the 2000s. To understand what millennials want to read, the News says it would like to add like-minded reporters in their early 20s to the staff. But it’s unclear how a young person will develop professionally, the News says. Five years, according to the News, would give enough time and make it easy to discharge those who don’t progress.

— A few years ago, the newsroom got much more involved in video to cover events and as stand-alone pieces. However, editors eventually questioned the value of video and turned away from the technology. In explaining its proposal, management said that had a group of videographers been hired, the News might have wanted to sever their employment when video was no longer a focus.

“These are unpredictable times. We need the flexibility to try new things. We may have needs today that in two years will be obsolete,” said Margaret Kenny, assistant managing editor.

“We need the ability to cut bait, to get rid of people hired with skills that are no longer needed,” said Kenny, who is representing newsroom management in bargaining.

Severance: For all Guild employees hired after Jan. 1, 2017, the News proposes to provide a maximum severance payment of 24 weeks, instead of the current 48 weeks.

Severance is paid to employees who are laid off or fired, and amounts to one week of pay for every six months of employment at the News.

The proposed change would not begin to save the News money until after a person worked 12 years, but management said it seeks to limit financial liabilities for the future.

“It is something we should start doing,” said Giglia.

The Guild bargaining team has not yet responded to the company’s package.

Our proposals call for continuation of a committee created last year to find efficiencies and increase revenue in the Classified Department, as well as a pay increase, preservation of existing contractual health insurance provisions, and a pension improvement.

Other proposals include creation of a system for Guild members to contribute up to one sick day per year to a Guild-covered employee who has exhausted all sick leave benefits, and a committee to encourage diversity in the hiring of new employees. Also, there are proposals to lift the cap on severance, update contract language to recognize the LGBT community, and allow employees a maximum of 37.5 hours – up from 22.5 hours – of paid sick leave annually to attend to a sick close family member.

The bargaining team stressed to management that Guild employees, well aware of the uncertainty in the newspaper industry, have gone years without a raise, taken on new responsibilities, shown flexibility in bargaining issues, and responded repeatedly to News concerns and initiatives. We also stressed that the News remains profitable, and it’s past time for a raise.

“Guild employees have taken the News’ interests to heart over the years. We want a contract that works for the News, but it has to be right and fair for our members,” said Guild President Henry Davis.

The bargaining team also talked about how Guild members this year urged Guild leadership to make a stronger statement at the start of bargaining. As a result, the mobilization committee, a big group representative of the local, came up with the #WeAreTheNews T-shirts and designed them. It worked out great.

T-shirts, buttons, balloons and other job actions help build solidarity. A show of solidarity sends the message to the News that we want a fair contract and are willing to fight for it. The Guild mobilization committee welcomes any suggestions members may have for future job actions..

The Guild bargaining team and the News have their next negotiating session scheduled for June 7.