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— Anyone who has passed through the San Diego Union-Tribune during Gene Bell's stint as publisher has heard the mantra, the talk of management's intention to take things at the paper "to the next level." Harmless mission-statement mumbo jumbo? Not to Jack Finneran and his 120 colleagues in the paper's pressroom. To them, the phrase has taken on a more ominous ring.

Last week, the U-T took its six-year conflict with its pressroom workers to a new level when it unilaterally declared an impasse in negotiations with their union, Local 432-M of the Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU). The company announced it was walking away from the bargaining table, where both sides sat since 1993 locked in talks that went nowhere. The company's negotiators will not return. Beginning March 8, management said, it will impose its last offer on the workers -- even though Local 432-M has such deep misgivings about the deal it refused to sign.

"We feel they took their contract, which we wouldn't agree to, and jammed it down out throats," says Finneran, the union's Bronx-born president. "We're not happy."

The tactic is known as "implementation upon impasse," and in labor relations it's a declaration of war, says Ellen Dannin, an expert on the subject who teaches at California Western School of Law. In recent years, she says, implementation upon impasse has been the first shot in some bloody labor-management showdowns, including the long and bitter strikes at the Detroit newspapers, Caterpillar, and Greyhound.

Finneran's immediate response to the company's declaration was confrontational. "I saw [labor relations manager] Patrick Marrinan with his boss, [human resources manager] Bobbie Espinosa, in the cafeteria after I learned about this," he says. "And so I walked over to their table, got right in his face, and said, 'Excuse me, Patrick. Big mistake.' "

Repeated efforts to talk with members of the U-T's management and legal team -- including Bell, Espinosa, Marrinan, production manager John Walker, pressroom supervisor Kathy Bilbrey, and outside counsel Howard Kastrinsky -- were unsuccessful.

Where the dispute goes from here depends on management, says Dannin. The paper could ratchet things up one more level by declaring a lockout and hiring permanent replacement workers to keep the presses running, although Dannin says that tactic is legally dubious.

What's more likely is that management will now ignore Local 432-M, a tactic it used to marginalize the Newspaper Guild between 1995 and 1998 and to set up last June's successful decertification vote -- stripping the union of its power as a collective bargaining agent for the 900 workers in the newsroom and advertising departments. Although the situation was slightly different -- management never declared an impasse with the Guild and never imposed a final offer -- the Guild's inability to hammer out a new contract undermined its authority with its members. That made management's argument for throwing the union out ("Give Change a Chance") sound reasonable.

The pressroom workers, who earn an average of $15 an hour, are unlikely to head for the picket line right away. "A strike is the last thing we'd ever want to do," says Finneran. "If we went out on strike, Marrinan and Bell would be yucking it up and drinking good champagne. But we'll turn up our campaign by several notches on as many fronts as we can. I have threatened in the past a boycott and that's certainly an option."

The impasse declaration comes as the paper's lawyers press forward with a separate effort in Washington, D.C., to get the government to restrict Finneran and other pressroom workers from publicizing their gripes -- an extraordinary request from a newspaper quick to defend its own right to free speech. Howard Kastrinsky, the lawyer handling the case for the U-T, works for the Nashville law firm of King & Ballow, which has successfully represented many newspapers in their struggles with entrenched unions, earning organized labor's enmity in the process.

"In my book, they're evil," says Finneran.

Never mind the conflict, the whiff of hypocrisy alone would guarantee the story front-page play in most newspapers. But the U-T has overlooked the drama taking place so close to home.

It began last fall, when Local 432-M decided that six years without a contract was long enough. The union's leadership had watched management successfully drive unions out of three departments between 1997 and 1998. They wanted to make sure the pressroom wasn't next.

A strike was out of the question. Instead, the union, one of only two still on the property, decided to launch a community handbilling campaign that would force management back to the bargaining table by dragging U-T advertisers into the fray.

So every weekend since October, the Sunday-afternoon routine for Finneran and his coworkers has been the same. They meet in a parking lot across the street from the U-T's Mission Valley offices. Then, after a brief reminder from Finneran about the ground rules -- "We don't want any legal backlash, any problems with the police" -- they drive off to that week's targeted advertiser. Once there, they walk back and forth on the closest public sidewalk, carrying sign cards that read "Something Stinks at the Union-Tribune" and distribute flyers to customers, employees, passersby -- anybody who'll take them -- outlining their gripes about wages, pensions, and health benefits.

"[The handbilling] does two things," Finneran says. "The businesses then go get back with the paper and say, 'Hey, we don't know what's going on with your employees, but we don't appreciate them being out here.' And the customers, we hope, call Gene Bell and express their support for us."

So far, the public's response to the campaign has been predictably mixed, admits Gregg Onstad, the union's recording secretary. Some shoppers and business owners, he says, support the union in its fight with management and agree to call Bell. Others refuse to accept the handbill and walk on. But the demonstrators have discovered something amusing in the process. "It's funny," Onstad says. "Most people we talk to already have a bad opinion of the Union-Tribune."

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