By MIA PENTA
SEATTLE – For the first time in nearly half a century, daily newspaper workers in the city have gone on strike.
Hundreds of news, advertising and circulation workers mounted picket lines early today outside The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“Shut it down!” about 200 pickets shouted, waving strike signs outside the main entrance to The Times as newly hired security workers and a few managers peered out.
The union represents about 1,000 Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild members who have been without a contract since July 22 at the two morning dailies. The strike deadline originally was 12:01 a.m. today, but a meeting of union members ran long and they voted about 80 percent to go on strike at 2 a.m., union officials said.
“When they gave us this puny offer, we just felt they were saying ‘go on strike,’ ” said Nirmala Bhat, a Times copy editor.
H. Mason Sizemore, president of The Times, said in a prepared statement that both papers would continue to be published.
“There is no reason for this strike,” Sizemore said. “The Seattle Times provides an excellent workplace and is very competitive in the industry and in the community on wages and benefits.”
At a 2 a.m. news conference, he said the papers’ negotiators were willing to resume talks at the request of the Guild or a federal mediator but added that the last offer had been withdrawn.
“We made a final offer contingent upon approval at midnight tonight. That offer is now off the table,” Sizemore said.
The city’s last newspaper strike was at The Times in 1953. The last strike against the P-I was in 1936.
Neither Guild administrative officer Larry Hatfield nor Sizemore would speculate how long the strike might last.
“We’ve been going at this since July, when our contract ran out, so we’ve had plenty of time to prepare,” said Ginny Mason, a Times circulation district adviser.
“I think it’s more of a question of how well prepared is the company to weather a strike,” said Barry Brannman, another Times circulation district adviser. “They just went into a morning operation here, which is still somewhat shaky.
“And, you never know in the wintertime. Carriers may not show up on their routes. Cars break down, they get stuck. Cars slide down hills fully loaded, overloaded with papers.”
Michael Ohanion, a Times reporter, said he would not cross picket lines although he voted against the walkout.
“The people in the newsroom are not in favor of the strike,” he said. “We really love our jobs (but) we understand there are other departments that aren’t treated as fairly.”
The strike began hours after the papers, which negotiate together under a joint operating agreement, reached a tentative agreement with the 460-member Teamsters Local 763. It was not immediately known when Teamsters members affected by the contract, about 170 distribution workers called mailers, would vote on the deal. A previous contract offer was rejected last week.
The final offer to the Guild was a six-year deal with hourly raises of 75 cents in the first year, 60 cents in the second, 50 cents in the third through fifth and 45 cents in the sixth.
The Guild sought a three-year contract with raises of $3.05 per hour the first year, $1.55 the second and $1.55 the third, then lowered its demands to $1.25 in the first year and $1 in each of the next two years.
The union also sought a company match for 401K retirement plans, increased mileage, withdrawal of a company demand to exclude 70 more employees from union coverage, improvements in The Times’ sick-leave provisions and phaseout of a two-tier wage system that pays employees in some suburban bureaus less than those who work downtown.
The papers’ final offer would have ended the two-tier system by the sixth year, said Times reporter Keith Ervin, a Guild negotiator.
Currently, the papers’ minimum wage for a reporter with six years’ experience is $844.88 a week, or $21.12 per hour.
Negotiations collapsed early Monday evening.
Sizemore said he expected that if the Guild went on strike, so would other union workers, including members of Teamsters Local 174 who drive large delivery trucks.
The newspapers have hired an unspecified number of temporary employees to continue publishing during the strike.
The Times began boarding up parts of its headquarters building Monday, removed newspaper boxes from the main entrance, erected fences around several buildings and hired uniformed security workers from Asset Protection Team.
Other area newspapers planned to publish additional copies in the event of a strike against the Seattle papers.
Sizemore said The Times and P-I would be free, both for delivery and at the newsstand, until they return to normal goals for news content.
“I’d like the readers to hang with us until we get the papers up to full speed,” he said. “I hope that’s within a few days.
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