NEW YORK — The News Media Guild launched a nationwide investigation into possible illegal coercive anti-union conduct by The Associated Press after receiving reports this week that managers threatened mass layoffs at the news cooperative.
The Guild told AP on Wednesday that it had reports from its members that some managers may have violated the anti-coercion provisions of the National Labor Relations Act. It demanded that AP produce a summary of all management contacts with staff about the ongoing labor negotiations. The union is also consulting with its membership of award-winning journalists and news workers to obtain details of the activity.
The union also believes the company is bargaining directly with employees rather than with the union’s negotiating committee. The National Labor Relations Act views such activity as bargaining in bad faith.
Members reported that their managers explained they were acting at the behest of senior AP officials and were directed to require employees to attend conference calls, office meetings, and in some cases personal “chats” about contract bargaining. Members reported that managers told them that mass layoffs would start immediately if the Guild did not accept the AP’s proposals within the next few days. Several staffers reported that 80-100 layoffs would result if immediate acquiescence was not obtained.
“We will conduct an investigation into these reports immediately, and if there are grounds, we will promptly file charges with the National Labor Relations Board,” said Tony Winton, the Guild’s president. “Quality journalism starts with legal conduct and fair dealing with the employees that report the news.”
The AP has never used an 80-100 layoff figure in its on-the-record discussions with union negotiators nor has it ever said that mass layoffs would start in days. The union learned this through reports from union members nationwide. AP has said a settlement of the contract is critical to the international news cooperative’s ability to be competitive and that it needed to freeze the pension by July 1, but it also denied it had an inability to pay. The nationwide campaign by managers to talk about bargaining directly with AP staff is unprecedented.
Guild employees have not had a wage increase for two years, and they accepted major changes to medical plans to cut costs in the last bargaining. A previous layoff and employee buyout in 2009 resulted in the loss of more than 100 positions, although AP has posted more than two dozen openings on its jobs website recently.
In bargaining, the union has repeatedly offered major concessions to no avail. The Guild developed a creative, cost-saving revision to the pension plan, which would have reduced 95 percent of the volatility the AP complained of and made employer costs predictable. The “fixed cost” plan — which AP itself described as “innovative” — would have largely met AP’s savings goals announced earlier in the talks. AP rejected the proposal, saying nothing but a total pension freeze was suitable.
On Tuesday, the Guild proposed a defined contribution plan in another attempt to reach settlement. The union’s proposal involved a tiered system that would retain some core retirement protection for all staff, as opposed to the sweeping reductions sought by AP. Although the Guild’s latest concession would save AP $18 million over five years, it too was immediately rejected. AP told the union it could cancel or delay offered contract improvements or cut pay and reduce other contract terms so employees could fund their own retirements.
On Wednesday, the Guild asked AP to present its final offer to members of the union. The AP declined to do so, adding that it would not “add one penny” to the economic package.
The Guild represents about 1,200 reporters, photographers, broadcast workers, technicians, and other news workers in all 50 states. Contract talks started last October, with AP demanding that the union agree to a pension freeze and deep medical premium increases. AP eventually offered to cancel the health care increases, but remained adamant about the retirement reductions.
In a message to staff during bargaining, AP CEO Tom Curley told employees that the non-profit cooperative, owned by U.S newspapers, was expected to return to profitability soon. However, in the round of Wednesday meetings, staffers reported managers claimed the company’s finances were dire and that the immediate concessions were needed.
The Guild is Local 31222 of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. Founded in 1958 as the Wire Service Guild, the local represents workers at AP, United Press International, and U.S. workers of the Spanish-language EFE News Service. Among its members are several Pulitzer prize winners. Recently, several AP journalists won a Polk award for coverage of the Gulf oil spill.