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Featherbedding: fact or fiction?

WHEN NEWSPAPER EXECUTIVES in Detroit describe the way the papers were produced before the strike, they lean on one word redolent of labor/management disputes fought decades ago: Featherbedding.

"The featherbedding, the restrictive work rules--we will never go back to that," Detroit News editor and publisher Robert H. Giles said in an interview.

"This strike is about control of the business," Detroit Free Press publisher Heath Meriwether told a community meeting recently."We now have 1,400 people doing the work that took 2,000 before."

"We were, without question, the last bastion of featherbedding in the newspaper industry," declared Frank Vega, president and chief executive officer of Detroit Newspapers, the joint operating agency for the two papers.

It is an essential element of the management position in the strike, but one that gets little detailed discussion in the media. In many ways, it is the striking journalists of the Newspaper Guild who are the public voice of the dispute. Free Press publisher Meriwether, for instance, made his comments at a kind of debate with a former Guild member. Not surprisingly, production and circulation issues get short shrift under those circumstances.

Here, then, are what both sides say about the way things were--and how they are now.

MANAGEMENT'S VIEW

From the management point of view, it is a simple matter to prove that union featherbedding was holding the newspapers down: Just look at what has happened to production since the strikers were replaced.

For instance, Vega said, consider the inserting equipment. It is true that the drop in advertising has dropped the volume of work, he said.

"But the productivity per hour is up 35% to 50%--with basically an inexperienced work force. It is only going to get better," Vega said.

Indeed, there was probably nothing that irritated the newspapers more &an what they say was the failure of the mailers, a Teamsters union, to efficiently operate the $22 million state-of-the-art inserter system they installed two years ago at the Sterling Heights plant.

During negotiations last MaY weeks before the July 13 beginning of the strike, Detroit Newspapers senior vice president of labor relations, Timothy Kelleher, threatened to outsource all inserting to a contractor in Allentown, Pa.

The new inserter, Kelleher said at the time,"is operating at about 50% of the efficiencies we have seen at other papers and it runs with about 35% more personnel than we have seen at other papers. We have been discussing this for about two years . . . but apparently there is little interest on the part of the mailers" in improving efficiencies.

Vega said that repeated attempts to improve efficiency were met with union indifference--or worse. "The unions felt we had to get their permission to do anything," Vega said."You know, other unions, like the UAW [United Auto Workers], they have participated [in labor/management cooperation] programs and made progress. Our unions actually told members not to participate with us."

Vega also charged that both in the pressroom and at the inserter, there was a "concerted effort to slow down so they could keep more presses running. And more presses, of course, mean more manning."

"Slowdowns were universal," he added. Mailers and pressmen "all sort of mysteriously got off at the same time . . . . There was nobody not getting his piece of the overtime pie."

And any time an inserter line began to perform to its rated efficiency Vega said, that line would suffer--some sort of malfunction. It was the same--in other areas of the mailroom, Vega said "I've got 30% fewer paper handlers handling twice as many rolls--and they're not breaking a sweat."

Union contracts allowed either extravagant overtime earnings--or excess time off, newspaper officials say

"If a pressman wanted to ... he could have 172 days off a year and work 193," Vega said.

Free Press publisher Meriwether told the community meeting that the average mailer made $47,000 annually and the average circulation manager $57,000. "These are not the [contract] proposals of a company out to bust the union, and those are not the paychecks of a mistreated work force," Meriwether said.

PRODUCTION UNIONS' VIEW

"Featherbedding" is as much a red flag to the Detroit's newspaper unions as it is to the newspapers' executives. It is an accusation union officials and members portray as a mixture of distortion and historical revisionism.

Union officials note the newspaper locals agreed to a three-year wage freeze in 1992 when the JOA was still losing money And they say they agreed to cut the jobs of about 300 people in the three years before the strike.

"You'll never hear about our union making concessions and giving up people," said Jim St. Louis, secretary/treasurer of Detroit Mailers Union, a Teamsters local.

The mailers are probably the deepest font of featherbedding anecdotes for newspaper managers -- and St. Louis says virtually all of them are distortions. Consider, for example, the accusations that the mailers worked to blunt the efficiency of the new inserter equipment.

"Hey,we realize when you spend $22 million on automation, you're going to be automated. Automation has never been an issue for us," St. Louis said.

Indeed, he says, union members and officials repeatedly offered specific suggestions for better operation of the equipment. "But even when we offered, they didn't want our input," St. Louis said. A Local 2040 leaflet about the inserter's problems said the first management/worker meeting on improving production was not held until last May 29, five weeks before the strike.

Suggestions were needed, St. Louis said, because the equipment was unproven -- and was plagued with numerous problems that could be attributed both to ordinary start-up difficulties and design problems. "There's just horror story after horror story about the production problems," he said.

One example: For months, St. Louis said, the automatic skid storage and retrieval system was mat functioning due to a faulty aim of the guiding beam. Rather than move the beam a few inches, managers insisted on dedicating an employee to putting masking tape on the skids each time they were moved to create a new mark. Only when an outside consultant also made the re-aiming suggestion, St. Louis said, was it adopted.

That's essentially the story with nearly all the work rules Detroit Newspapers complain about, St. Louis said. They were created by the company. If there were trig opportunities for overtime pay or shortened work schedules, it was because the company offered them, the unions argue.

"Nobody's giving anybody anything if a guy making $16 an hour makes $50,000 a year. It doesn't take a genius to see how that guy made $50,000,"St. Louis said. "Most people worked -- and it's clear from their paychecks -- more time than they were required [under the contract], sometimes voluntary and sometimes because [supervisors] told them to."

And despite the problems with the inserter equipment, St. Louis said, union mailers, for one, were efficient newspaper production workers.

"When we walked out of there, we were running at industry standards and above," he said.

St. Louis scoffs at Detroit Newspapers' assertions that efficiency has improved with replacement workers. For one thing, he said, the papers are now using 20 supervisory personnel to work on the line for the first time. "So right off the bat, there are 20 more people we trained who are doing the specialized work. They also imported experienced people from other Gannett papers," St. Louis said.

More important, both the volume and the complexity of the inserts has declined dramatically since the strike began, the unions say.

Offering before-and-after internal press run documents as evidence, St. Louis said the volume of inserts is down as much as 40%. And he notes that some of the inserts that gave union mailers their biggest headaches on the new equipment -- such as a Montgomery Ward product and the spadia on double Sunday comics sections -- have been eliminated since the strike began. Even the Free Press

Sunday rotogravure is gone, St. Louis notes.
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Title Annotation:one of the issues facing Detroit News Inc and striking employees
Author:Fitzgerald, Mark
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Mar 16, 1996
Words:1327
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