Guild: EFE is “Moving Goalposts” in Contract Talks

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2013 – Representatives for EFE News Services abruptly revised the company’s financial cost savings goals on Thursday, moving labor talks further apart for a new contract covering the Spanish news agency’s U.S. workers.

The move is the latest in a series of regressive actions taken by EFE since January, when the company retreated from earlier agreements on basic labor matters such as hours, overtime, and work schedules.

EFE workers, in their sixth year of a wage freeze, are facing deep wage and benefit cuts as EFE, the world’s largest Spanish-language news agency, is dealing with austerity measures imposed by the Spanish government.

The Guild has told EFE that it was willing to help the company weather the crisis, but that cuts must be fair and temporary.

The union on Wednesday proposed a year-long furlough program that — based on company data provided to the Guild  — would save the employer $180,000 over one year by establishing 104 unpaid furlough hours for each employee. The proposal was designed to give the employer great flexibility in arranging the furloughs to meet the demands of news coverage.

After the Guild made its proposal, EFE representatives then outlined an economic proposal that it called a “furlough” involving lunch breaks.

EFE’s “furlough” concept relies on a new assertion that Guild-covered workers improperly have been paid for non-working lunch breaks since 2006, when the first contract between the Guild and EFE was negotiated.

EFE’s chief negotiator said that over the years, a series of company executives misinterpreted the wording of contracts they negotiated and agreed to with their attorneys.  In describing its so-called “furlough,” EFE’s negotiator explained that company executives “thought” that they were “supposed” to pay workers for non-working lunch periods. This belief, EFE claimed, persisted for seven years despite a clear contract term that says the workday at EFE is 7 ½ hours long within 8 hours.

After explaining how EFE workers were the beneficiaries of the company’s unintentional largesse, EFE then proposed what it called a “30 minute daily furlough,” or 2 ½ hours per week. In other words – a 7 ½ day with an unpaid 30 minute meal break, precisely the same arrangement that has existed since 2006. Thus, EFE would reduce wages the equivalent of 6.25%. This would be permanent, but EFE said it could increase wages 3% on Jan. 1, 2015.

“This is a version of three card monte with the lunch period,” said Chief Negotiator Tony Winton, referring to the con game played by street hucksters where a player can never win.   The union said EFE workers have been encouraged to work free overtime for years and that only when a few employees decided to complain did the employer “discover” purported “problems” with meal breaks.

The Guild invited EFE to conduct an audit of computer transmission records that are created when news stories are “filed” on news wires to determine if workers were improperly being paid during lunch breaks, or not paid for work before or after the regular work shifts. EFE did not respond to the Guild’s invitation.

After making all of these assertions and insisting on an a 10% cut in medical costs in addition to wage savings, EFE told the Guild Thursday it intended to assert an “impasse” in bargaining, a legal threat to unilaterally impose wage and benefit cuts on employees.

The Guild, which has already filed a complaint with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, told EFE that it disagreed with any assertion of impasse, pointing to several open areas of the contract in which good-faith bargaining continues – despite several reversals, regressions, and misleading statements by the Employer.

One particular misstatement is instructive.

The Guild pointed to a meeting on March 14 with EFE’s number-two Madrid executive, Ignacio Sanz. Sanz told the Guild that EFE was seeking $140,000 in annual savings, based on reductions imposed by the Spanish government. In laying out the savings target, Sanz specifically told NMG negotiators the target could be achieved through a combination of wage and benefit cuts as well as staff attrition, adding that EFE did not plan to backfill some vacancies. He specifically noted that an upcoming hire for a vacancy in EFE’s New York City bureau would be excluded from the U.S. budget line.

On Thursday, however, EFE denied that Sanz had ever made such statements and said EFE needed to backfill all open positions, and therefore, the Guild’s savings calculations were flawed.

EFE did make changes to some non-economic areas of the contract covering interns and non-discrimination language.

Seeking to reach agreement, the union informally outlined to EFE a series of possible options that could reduce costs. The Guild requested updated information from EFE about the cost savings of its proposals and how the figures were arrived at.

The options, all of which the Guild said it is prepared to explore, depend on receiving and analyzing the updated information requested by the Guild.

The possible options, the Guild said, could include the following:

  • Possible modifications to NMG’s Wednesday furlough proposal that would temporarily reduce wages 5%, a concept that EFE itself described as creative, or;
  • Possibly establishing a 35 hour workweek that would temporarily reduce wages by 6.25%; or
  • Possibly implementing a temporary 6.25 percent cut in wages followed by a 3 percent increase in combination with savings in the medical plan.

“EFE has to stop moving the goal posts,” said Jorge A. Bañales, the Guild’s unit chair. “The workers at EFE are proud of what they do and the mission of quality journalism in the Spanish language – and they are willing to offer EFE fair and temporary relief because of the Spanish economic crisis — even though workers here had no role in creating it,” Bañales said. “EFE has agreed to restore wages to its Spain workforce in September, 2016, and EFE should start thinking about treating all workers fairly, he added.”

The Guild is reviewing its options with legal counsel, as it remains committed to completing good-faith negotiations with EFE. It is also awaiting several information requests made to the company so that it can intelligently evaluate the bargaining situation.

Representing the Guild were Winton, Bañales, and rank-and-file negotiating committee member Winston Rodríguez, and Bruce Nelson, an international representative with The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America.

Representing EFE were José Manuel Sanz and Laureano García, EFE News Services vice presidents, and attorney Arturo Ross.