Negotiators for the Blethen Maine Newspapers, owners of the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, and the Portland Newspaper Guild Local 128, which represents about 20 workers in the Sentinel's newsroom, have reached tentative agreement on a new contract that runs through Jan. 31, 2009.
Union members at the paper have been working without a contract since Jan. 31, 2006 and have not had a raise since 2005. In late December, reporters at the paper began withholding their bylines in protest.
According to Darla Pickett, chair of the Guild's Waterville unit, the agreement contains two cost-of-living wage increases, as well as a signing bonus. But, Pickett said, the contract does not include any retroactive pay hikes. She described a new sick leave policy as "a little more stringent" than current rules.
The sticking point in the negotiations had been outsourcing, the ability of the company to transfer the work done by union members to non-union correspondents and freelancers. The proposed settlement will allow that to happen on a limited basis.
Current Guild members will be protected from having their jobs outsourced, but that protection will not extend to any newsroom staff hired from now on. Pickett called that change "disheartening" and said it placed future workers "in jeopardy," but said union negotiators felt there was no chance the company would yield any ground on the issue.
"I think what they've given us is the best we can do for our membership at this time," Pickett said. "We fought long and hard, and [this deal] lends some strength for future bargaining with whoever comes along."
C.J. Betit, administrative officer of the union, said there were some protections in the deal, such as a prohibition on the newspaper setting up non-union "shadow departments" to do work currently done by Guild members. Nevertheless, Betit said the negotiating committee was sending the contract to the membership without a recommendation as to whether is should be approved or rejected, because of the outsourcing issue.
Blethen has put the Sentinel and its other Maine properties - the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram and Kennebec Journal, as well as its Web sites and other publications - on the market and has announced it wants to complete a sale by year's end. If that happens, the next contract will have to be worked out with the new owner. Among those trying to buy the company is a group lead by the Guild that hopes to institute an employee-ownership plan.
"We settled for what we can get now and look to next January," said Betit. "It'll be all different players then, an all different scene. At this point, employee ownership is still on the table."
Waterville Guild members will meet Tuesday, May 13 at noon to vote on the proposed settlement.- Filed May 8, 2008
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.