Union vote saves Newark Star-Ledger

October 7, 2008 10:00:11 PM PDT
Drivers for The Star-Ledger of Newark on Tuesday approved contract concessions, and the owners of New Jersey's largest newspaper said the vote ensured that the paper would not be closed or sold. Union members voted 161-6 to ratify the new agreement, which will replace an existing contract.

The union had until Wednesday to accept the deal. The union agreement was the last of three conditions set by Advance Publications, which owns the Star-Ledger, to maintain its ownership of the paper.

In addition to concessions from the drivers union, management sought buyouts from 200 of the newspaper's 750 full-time, nonunion workers and concessions from the mailers union, which were granted last month.

"I'm thrilled The Star-Ledger will remain part of our family," said Donald Newhouse, president of Advance Publications. "I have confidence in The Star-Ledger management team, and I think we can do in the future what we have done in the past: serve the needs of our readers and advertisers."

The fate of The Times of Trenton, N.J., also hinged on the vote because it shares printing and some business operations with the Star-Ledger.

Douglas Panattieri Jr., president of the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers Union, said the new contract, which is to run until 2017, included a wage freeze for the length of the contract. It also has buyout provisions for about 20 of the 90 union drivers for the Star-Ledger, he said.

Panattieri said union members would receive 2.5 percent increases annually in the form of bonuses, but that their base pay, on which overtime and other benefits are calculated, would remain level.

Union leadership had urged its members to ratify the agreement.

"In the last few months, there were a few key-point issues that needed to be addressed. I am glad that the NMDU and the Ledger finally have come to terms with those issues," Panattieri said.

Under the bylaws of the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers Union, members who work at other New York-area papers also were eligible to vote, said Steven Goldstein, the union's secretary-treasurer.

But the contract changes ratified Tuesday affect only drivers for the Star-Ledger.

Newspapers across the country have seen advertising revenue decline as readers flock to the Internet. The drop was even steeper this year because of general economic uncertainty.

The Star-Ledger, which has a daily circulation of about 350,000, has posted losses for at least three straight years and is on pace to lose between $30 million and $40 million in 2008.

Besides the drivers union contract, Star-Ledger Publisher George Arwady had said the paper needed at least a quarter of its full-time, nonunion employees to apply for a buyout, which would pay severance equal to an employee's 2007 annual pay plus one year of health benefits.

Newhouse said Tuesday that target has been met, as expected, and he said that even if the handful of employees who still could withdraw their applications did so, there were enough applications.

It was unclear Tuesday exactly how many nonunion employees would be leaving the newspaper, but executives said at least one-third of the newsroom staff would go.

"Over the coming days, we need to decide how many of the buyouts will be accepted, and we'll have to start making plans for the paper going forward," said Editor Jim Willse.

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