Union workers in the Morning Sentinel newsroom voted 13-4 on May 13 to ratify a new contract with the owner of the Waterville daily, the Blethen Maine Newspapers. According to Darla Pickett, the chair of the Portland Newspaper Guild's Waterville unit, the contract covers 21 employees represented by the union and provides raises of 2.5 percent, retroactive to May 4, with another 2.5 percent raise when the agreement is signed. The deal also includes signing bonuses of $1,600 for full-timers, $600 for part-timers and $300 for occasional part-timers. But the union also gave up considerable ground on the issue of outsourcing.
Guild members had been working without a contract since Jan. 31, 2006 and had not had a raise since 2005. In late December, the union began protesting the lack of progress toward a new contract by urging reporters to withhold their bylines on stories printed in the paper. In April, the company threatened to declare an impasse in the negotiations and terminate its collective bargaining agreement with the Guild. Faced with that possibility and the likely sale of the Blethen papers in Maine by the end of the year, union workers had little choice but to make concessions.
The new contract gives Sentinel management greater freedom to outsource work by using less-expensive freelancers and correspondents to cover stories. While current Guild members will still be protected from outsourcing, anyone hired under the new contract will face the possibility of having his or her job farmed out to non-union workers at management's discretion. In addition, any Guild member with less than 10 years at the Sentinel could be transferred to Blethen's Augusta newspaper, the Kennebec Journal, at any time. Pickett said that provision could affect four or five employees. The agreement also includes a more restrictive sick-day requirement.
"The general attitude of our members was we'll do what's best for us under the circumstances," said Pickett. "We'll have to see what comes next."
Since the new contract runs only through the end of January, the Guild will soon have to deal with another round of negotiations, probably with new owners. Among those expressing interest in buying Blethen's Maine papers - which also include the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram
- is the union itself, although, if the rumor mill is to be believed, it faces strong competition from several national chains.
Sentinel publisher John Christie did not return a phone call seeking comment on the agreement.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.