Blethen Files Suit Against Guild
The Blethen Maine Newspapers, owners of the Portland Press Herald and other dailies in the state, filed suit on June 17 in U.S. District Court in Portland seeking to resolve the legal question of whether its contract with Local 128 of the Newspaper Guild is binding on future owners.
The union contends language in the agreement clearly requires a new owner to abide by the agreement, which runs through 2011. The Guild represents most employees at the Portland paper.
The company is asking the court to either rule that the contract is not binding on new owners or order the union to enter arbitration to decide whether the agreement would apply. In its court filing, Blethen argues the dispute is damaging its chances to sell its Maine properties, a process it hopes to complete by the end of the year.
"A prompt resolution of this dispute is essential to efforts to find a buyer to secure its future and stabilize its operations and critical for the future of employees, many of whom may be laid off if cannot find a suitable buyer," the document says. "Having this contract interpretation question raised but not answered has already had a chilling effect on efforts to sell its assets and may present (sic) from finding a suitable buyer."
Chuck Cochrane, publisher of the Press Herald, issued a memo to the staff earlier today, explaining the suit.
"Even though the owners of Blethen Maine Newspapers do not believe that a buyer can be forced to assume the guild contract, they are willing to ask prospective buyers if they will agree to do so voluntarily," Cochrane wrote. "However, none of the interested parties has so far indicated any inclination to accept the current contract as it is written."
The suit appears to be an attempt by Blethen to replace the grievance process usually employed to settle contract disputes with a legal ruling. Last month, the company asked the union to waive many of the steps in the grievance process and submit the dispute to arbitration. The Guild refused, claiming this issue was not subject to arbitration. Blethen argues in its court filing that this action means the union has waived its right to arbitration. The company also contends the Guild intends to block any sale with an injunction until the new owner agrees to abide by the current contract.
Without court action, Blethen contends, the company "will suffer irreparable harm for which monetary damages are inadequate compensation." Nevertheless, the suit asks for damages because of the union's alleged breach of the contract.
Guild officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.