By BRYAN CORLISS
SEATTLE — Negotiations could go on around the clock this weekend in an effort to head off Seattle’s first newspaper strike in almost half a century.
With a midnight Monday strike deadline looming, a federal mediator on Thursday imposed a confidentiality agreement on the bargaining teams for the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The two sides had better do all they can to reach an agreement, because neither the Times nor the P-I nor their employees can afford a walkout, a Washington State University media management professor said.
"I’ve got a feeling they’re going to do an 11th-hour thing on this," WSU’s Bob Hilliard said. "They have to."
The guild continued to prepare for a walkout on Friday. The union planned a Saturday training session with members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEAA), which had a successful strike earlier this year, to discuss the logistics of setting up and maintaining 24-hour picket lines.
Meanwhile, Seattle Times management issued a memo on Thursday outlining how employees can quit the union so they could cross picket lines and continue working if there’s a walkout.
The memo also warned that the paper plans to hire temporary and permanent replacements "if necessary" to continue putting out a paper during a strike.
The stakes are high, said Hilliard, a former editor at both newspapers who now is general manager of WSU’s student publications and a professor of newsroom management in the Edward R. Murrow School of Communications.
For the unionized newsroom workers at the Times and P-I, it’s simple: the threat of being thrown out of work at the start of the holiday season.
For the newspaper guild, it’s a matter of credibility, Hilliard said.
"The guild gave away the store" with its last two contracts, he said. Union negotiators now are taking a hard line to "try to get back control."
But management may be facing the biggest stakes of all.
The guild’s decision to call for a pre-Thanksgiving strike was shrewd, Hilliard said. Newspapers bring in 15 to 20 percent of their year’s advertising revenue in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he said.
"The Bon starts buying heavy. Nordstrom’s buying heavy, (and) the dot-coms," Hilliard said. "These two newspapers cannot afford for retailers to realize they can get through a Christmas season without them."
The Times and P-I certainly can publish during the strike, filling pages with wire service stories and topping them with a handful of stories written by editors, Hilliard said. But in doing that, they run the risk of losing readers who buy the paper for its local news. "And when they walk away, they don’t walk back," he said.
Management could avoid all that by meeting the guild’s pay demands. But that would weaken its position with its other unions, particularly the two Teamsters locals that deliver the papers, Hilliard said.
"If you crank that up for the newsroom, those guys will want that much and more," he said.
Local 174, which represents the drivers who carry the papers from printing presses to the distribution centers, will honor guild picket lines, business agent Miguel Gomez said.
Yet management has its own hole card — the Northwest’s reputation as a desirable place to live.
"For the bulk of them, it was a deliberate choice" to move to Seattle, Hilliard said. "There aren’t that many of them who want to leave."