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NLRB investigates new charges of unfair labor practices at the Rockford Register Star

The National Labor Relations Board will have a field investigator in Rockford this week to probe management actions at the Register Star.

The United Media Guild believes Register Star managers are harassing unit chair Max Gersh due to his union activities. It filed still another complaint with the NLRB, prompting a new investigation.

Once again the newspaper unfairly singled out Gersh for disciplinary action in the midst of negotiations for a first contract at the Register Star.

Earlier the NLRB found that the Register Star committed unfair labor practices relating to Gersh, the scheduling the photography department and the threatened outscourcing of all photography work.

The Register Star’s parent company, GateHouse Media, contested that ruling. The NLRB will hold a hearing on that matter in Peoria next month.

GateHouse Media is willing to spend thousands of dollars defending these allegations, but the company is unwilling to offer raises to employees who have been working under perpetual wage freezes.

NLRB charges GateHouse Media with labor law violations at Rockford Register Star

The National Labor Relations Board has charged GateHouse Media Illinois Holdings Inc. with multiple violations of the National Labor Relations Act for management actions at the Rockford Register Star.

The NLRB investigated a complaint filed by the United Media Guild and found merit on several points:

  • GateHouse retaliated against our members after the UMG objected to unilateral changes to how photographers were to be scheduled. By labor law, such changes must be negotiated due to the status quo protections for working conditions during a initial contract negotiation. When the UMG would not agree to the changes, the NLRB charged that the newspaper “threatened employees and announced that it would change its policy regarding the ability of employees to alter schedules.”
  • GateHouse took that action in a letter to employees, the NLRB charged, “in order to undermine the (UMG)’s status as the employees’ bargaining representative.”
  • At the bargaining table GateHouse subsequently proposed that it have the right to outsource all photography-related work. The NLRB charged the company with doing so “because the employees . . . formed, joined and assisted the Union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees in these activities.”
  • By doing so, GateHouse “has failed and refused to bargain in good faith with the Union as the exclusive collective-bargaining representative of the Unit.”

The NLRB proposed remedies to settle these charges, but GateHouse Media declined. A company that steadfastly refuses to end its seven-year wage freeze will have no trouble running up a big legal bill defending itself in this case.

A hearing on these charges is scheduled for Feb. 10, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. in Peoria.

In the meantime, the NLRB will begin investigating a new UMG complaint about GateHouse actions in Rockford. In our filing we argue that the newspaper has twice singled out unit chair Max Gersh for disciplinary action because of his union activities.

New Media Investment Group/GateHouse Media keeps buying, slashing newspaper properties

The vulture capitalists at New Media Investment Group/GateHouse Media are at again.

The same folks who built the GateHouse Media empire — before running it into bankruptcy and blowing through $1 billion in debt — are building an even bigger media empire. In their latest move, the company bought the Halifax Media Group for $280 million.

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, in particular, will be a huge addition for the company. It will help New Media/GateHouse to control much of Massachusetts outside of Boston.

Although Halifax has been a relentless cost-cutter, this acquisition could cost even more journalists their jobs due to the inevitable consolidation of Halifax and New Media/GateHouse operations. New Media/GateHouse will continue outsourcing local jobs to its central design house in Austin, Texas.

While the Halifax deal was going down, long-time Gatehouse executive Brad Dennison abruptly resigned his post as Senior Vice President of Publishing.

Dennison supported quality journalism on his watch and made some outstanding managerial hires. Earlier this year he brokered a peaceful contract extension with our members at the Peoria Journal Star — a deal which allowed the newspaper to keep its copy desk through the length of the extension.

The United Media Guild was sorry to see him leave the company. There was no doubting Dennison’s passion for the media business. With Dennison gone, we’re guessing the company will become even more committed to funneling money out of its markets at the expense of good journalism and community service.

So we’re advising the folks working at Halifax properties to be wary of the happytalk GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis offered up to employees:

Your reputation for journalistic excellence is inspiring to us; the Pulitzer Prize winning series in Tuscaloosa and Sarasota set a high bar. We also believe that the strength of your brands will support and add depth to our community publishing model. We look forward to partnering with you to leverage our respective strengths, so that together, we may continue our commitment to community news and service.

With this acquisition, we will operate newspapers and associated websites across 31 states in over 400 markets. We are committed to investing in our markets; recent research initiatives are informing changes to our local news products, both print and digital. We launched Propel Marketing, our fast growing digital marketing services agency, to provide a broader range of solutions for our small and mid-size business customers.

I’m certain you have many questions about benefits and the transition process; we will provide more information over the coming weeks. There is also much to share on programs and resources we can provide and collaborate on. Prior to completing the purchase, we expect to engage with your senior management team as we think about the transition and evaluate current priorities, trends and ideas.

We’re looking forward to working together!

Until you’re laid off or you quit in exasperation, that is.

Check out some recent comments former GateHouse employees left on the Glassdoor website:

“Pay is below industry standards, especially for location. Lots of turnover, low morale. Directives from national corporate are tone-deaf to regional consumers, workload of staff. Equipment and technology embarrassingly inadequate, outdated.”

“This is a turn and burn place. Everybody comes and leaves like crazy. They do not give raises and will treat you like nothing at all. The do not care at all about you. They have products that do not work and would rather sell to new customers than retain old ones. I have actually seen high ups from this company lie under oath to protect the profits of this company.”

“Many employees will do everything it takes to get their jobs done, even when they are visibly given too much to do (as the company continually cuts positions). They take their work home. They blur the lines for hours worked overtime, because management will harass them if they log any overtime hours.”

Rockford Register Star journalists get no raises, but their publisher gets promoted

Our members at the Rockford Register Star and Freeport Journal-Standard did a marvelous job advancing the career of publisher Josh Trust.

GateHouse Media Senior Vice President Brad Dennison announced that Trust is moving up to Division Vice President of Community East. In a memo to employees, Dennison said Trust “led a low-performing property in difficult market to one of our best.”

Dennison also noted that “Rockford’s YTD digital marketing services revenue accounts for more than a third of the Large Daily’s production.”

And how have been Register-Star employees been rewarded for that business success? With the staff reductions and eternal wage freezes Trust imposed.

He generated strong cash flow from Rockford with ruthless cost-cutting. He demoralized the staff and inspired them to join the United Media Guild — despite his intense anti-union campaign.

Now Trust moves on to greener pastures, leaving Rockford and Freeport with stripped-down news operations. GateHouse keeps sucking money out of the region to fuel further acquisitions by its parent company, New Media Investment Group, and pay dividends to shareholders.

The United Media Guild will continue fighting for a first contract that rewards our Register Star and Journal-Standard members for this success. UMG will continue supporting the journalists who strive to produce high-quality newspapers and digital products for this region.

Rockford unit to march in Labor Day Parade

Melissa Westphal’s time is short as our Rockford unit chair. She is moving on to an exciting new professional opportunity. Her last day at the Register Star is Sept. 5.

She stayed at the newspaper for an extra week so she could march with her co-workers in the Labor Day parade as an active union member. Other Register Star and Journal-Standard journalists are invited to join her and our brothers and sisters from other Rockford-area unions.

This is a great chance to spread the word of the United Media Guild’s ongoing fight for a first contract at these newspapers.

The Rockford parade begins at 10 a.m. Sept. 1 from Seventh and Railroad. The parade will proceed north on Seventh to E. State, west on State to Wyman and south on Wyman before ending at the Cedar Street entrance to Davis Park.

This year’s theme is “Standing United to Secure our Future.” That message rings true for GateHouse Media employees who have endured years of wage freezes and severe staffing cuts.

GateHouse rewards shareholders, not journalists

New Media Investment Group, parent company at GateHouse Media, has delivered on its promise to reward shareholders with dividends.

The second quarter produced free cash flow of $19.6 million, or $0.65 on a per-share basis. So the New Media Board of Directors voted to issue a 27-cent quarterly dividend.

An analyst participating in New Media’s quarterly earnings call wondered if that dividend was a bit generous. CEO Michael Reed noted that New Media’s plan all along was to pay strong dividends.

Indeed, from the outset New Media has aimed to convert free cash flow into dividends. The goal was to stand apart from similar media companies still grappling with crippling debt.

That makes sense, but the company is holding a firm economic line in negotiations with the United Media Guild at the The State Journal-Register in Springfield, the Pekin Daily Times and the Rockford Register Star. The company’s position is that is has the money to offer raises in its collective bargaining agreements but chooses not to do so at this time.

In fairness to company, it is also using some of the free cash flow to fund acquisitions. This certainly is smarter than borrowing heavily to buy new properties, a practice that plunged GateHouse and other media companies into bankruptcy.

And the pending purchases of the Providence Journal could bolster New Media in several ways. Its strong position in New England will became even stronger.

But . . . the failure to reinvest in New Media’s core product of “compelling, high-quality local news”, as Reed likes to put it, could cause long-term audience erosion.

The UMG hears the old “if you don’t like it, leave” refrain when it presses GateHouse officials about its treatment of journalists. Churning the newsroom is a bad business strategy. That practice erases institutional knowledge and severs connections in the community.

Excessive staff reductions are also a bad idea. The profitable Rockford Register Star has proposed language that it would allow it to replace its two surviving staff photographers with free-lancers.

That would represent still another harmful cut to a newsroom decimated by lay-offs on GateHouse’s watch.

Since the foundation of New Media’s newspaper business is “strong and trusted local brands”, as Reed likes to say, diminishing the product doesn’t seem like a great long-range strategy.

We have been engaging readers in Springfield, Pekin and Rockford to see what they think of their local newspapers. Consumers notice the product erosion and many are willing to support our efforts to maintain quality journalism.

As for New Media, the company offered earth-shattering revelations during its latest earnings call. Here were a few highlights:

  • New Media recently gained more favorable financing for past, ongoing and future purchases.
  • Print advertising was down again in the second quarter, but digital advertising was up slightly (4.4 percent) and classified advertising stabilized.
  • Revenues from Propel Marketing more than doubled in one year, up to $4.5 million.
  • Circulation revenues remained stable. (But how long will readers be willing to pay more for less?)
  • Commercial printing revenues rose nearly 15 percent.
  • GateHouse/New Media remains in acquisition mode, although Reed declined to offer specifics. Disclosing how much money he had in the acquisition “pipeline” could hurt the company during purchase negotiations.

Elsewhere on the GateHouse/New Media front:

GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis made nice with Providence Journal readers with a full-page ad.

New Media Investment Group apparently will not honor existing collective bargaining agreement when its purchase of the Journal becomes final. The seller, A.H. Belo Corp., will pay the severance on up to 40 employees who lose their jobs due to this purchase.

Folks in Providence wonder what will become of The Journal now that it is in the GateHouse/New Media family.