Negotiations between The Sun, union continue as deadline nears Contract covering 650 will expire tonight

June 22, 1996|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

A labor contract covering reporters, editors and other Baltimore Sun Co. employees was due to expire today, but late yesterday company and union negotiators still hadn't agreed on a new pact and planned to continue bargaining hard.

The key issues dividing the sides: health benefits, wage increases and the company's desire to be able to shift workers between departments. The contract with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild covers 650 people in The Sun's newsroom, ad department, circulation department and other areas. The paper has 1,600 employees.

Both sides acknowledged making some progress yesterday, but differed on the degree.

"There are some big differences," Carol Rosenblatt, the union's administrative officer, said yesterday. "There's a little movement their side, but not nearly as much as is needed to get a contract by tomorrow night."

A spokesman for The Sun was more optimistic. "It strikes me that we've made a lot of progress in the last few days," said Michael Shultz. "It's always hard to get a sense of it, but I'm very hopeful that we'll get an agreement."

Guild members were not ruling out a strike, and management was making plans to publish the paper without them.

To help compensate for rising medical costs, the company wants to assign all employees in the union to "managed care" medical insurance or health maintenance organizations and boost what employees pay for health coverage.

At the same time, The Sun's management has offered a $1,000 lump sum to each full-time worker in the first year of the contract and an average $19 per week pay increase in both the second and third years. The company has also offered to give each covered worker a $1,500 "marketing flexibility payment" if the union approves a contract containing certain provisions before expiration tonight at midnight, and it has offered an option for 100 shares of stock in Times Mirror Co., its owner, to each employee.

The top minimum pay for a reporter at The Sun is $958 per week, or $49,816 annually; top minimum for an ad salesperson is $934 per week, or $48,568 a year.

"We want a contract that balances the concerns of our advertisers and readers and the needs of our employees," Mary Junck, publisher and chief executive of the company, said in a letter distributed to workers yesterday.

But increased medical co-payments and a proposal for employees to pay up to 19.5 percent of health insurance premiums by 1998 would erode worker pay increases, Guild leaders said. The wage proposal would be "unlikely to keep most of us ahead of inflation or the higher costs of the proposed medical plan," the Guild said in a leaflet yesterday.

Guild leaders also object to a company request to be able to hire ad salespeople paid on commission and to assign work now performed by Guild employees to workers not covered under the contract. The company promised that no Guild-covered employee would be laid off as a direct result of the change, but Guild members said they feared that the company could slowly add cheap free-lance and part-time help to replace Guild members who resign or retire.

Shultz denied that that was the intent of the change. "It sounds far-fetched to me," he said. "That's the sort of stuff that has to get hammered out at the table." Instead, he said, The Sun needs to be more flexible in assigning workers so it can respond better to the fast-changing media market.

Times Mirror, which owns The Sun, booked a 14.8 percent increase in profit last year, not counting discontinued operations and one-time charges. With such results, the company can well afford to give Guild members better raises, the Guild contends.

Shultz said that higher newsprint prices and weak ad sales have hurt newspapers, and that year-to-date ad revenue for Times Mirror's newspaper group is up only 0.5 percent so far this year. He declined to disclose circulation revenue.

John Morton, an independent, Washington-based newspaper analyst, said: "This is not what I would call a robust newspaper economy, and Times Mirror's papers are no different. But most of them continue to do pretty well, including Times Mirror's."

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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