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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."

Management's response, on the other hand, has been unequivocal and ham-fisted. First, the company's irked top brass went to court to try to convince the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to ban the workers from publicizing their dispute, even though they are doing it on their own time and off company property. That had union members pulling out their pocket Constitutions and crying foul.

"They're trying to deny our First Amendment rights, which are the very rights that enable them to make the tremendous profits they do," says Finneran. "I mean, Helen Copley is worth close to $800 million, according to Forbes Magazine. She made that money on the First Amendment. It is incredibly hypocritical."

Then, last week, the company took the fight to the next level, declaring an impasse in negotiations and implementing management's final offer, a 30-page document that contains things the union doesn't want -- like a 12-hour workday -- and some things it frankly doesn't understand, including this: "The rights of management shall include the right to determine the existence or nonexistence of the facts..."

"I mean, what the hell does that mean?" Finneran asks. "People are afraid a little bit. They're, like, 'Wait a minute. Now the company can do whatever it wants?' "

Local 432-M has formally protested management's declaration of impasse and plans to file an unfair-labor-practice charge against the paper at the NLRB. In the meantime, the union has won a preliminary victory in its effort to fight the paper's courtroom effort to suppress the leafleting campaign.

In December, the NLRB's Los Angeles office investigated the matter and then ruled against the paper, saying the employees were within their rights and that the handbilling did not constitute unlawful picketing. To Cal-Western's Dannin, who worked as a trial attorney at the NLRB in Detroit for 11 years, that makes it "90 percent" certain that the NLRB's Washington office, which is handling the U-T's appeal, will rule in favor of the workers. "In my experience, the board agents do a very serious job in their investigations...they get it right the first time," Dannin says.

The whole affair comes at an awkward time for the paper, which is trying to lure two dozen new reporters into its ranks as it beefs up coverage in outlying bureaus, especially North County. That may help explain why the paper has been reluctant to report the story. Recruiting journalists -- the principled variety anyway -- might get tricky if word got out the paper's management was in court trying to get the feds to suppress the off-the-clock free-speech activities of its workers.

"It's strange that they're not even doing a cover-your-ass story," one former reporter says. "In the old days, they would at least go through the motions of covering these things. They'd get some poor reporter to write up a five-inch story that they would bury on B-3 or B-4."

(The paper has not completely ignored Local 432-M's noisy campaign. A mid-December demonstration by workers in front of the U-T building warranted a 224-word story that appeared on C-3. But the story failed to mention the paper's curious court campaign or the union's wider effort targeting advertisers. And in the days immediately following last week's declaration of impasse, nothing about the move appeared in the U-T.)

The news blackout is all the more troubling because the union alleges management's response to the leafleting campaign hasn't been confined to the courtroom. In a flurry of charges filed with the NLRB since the campaign began, Local 432-M claims managers are retaliating against workers inside the pressroom. And they claim one employee, Jeff Alger, a 30-year-old father of five has been hard hit by the retaliation. The union says managers have imposed unwarranted discipline on Alger, threatened to falsely accuse him of sabotage, and spied on him when he was off company property in "an obvious effort to threaten, coerce, restrain and intimidate Mr. Alger from engaging in further activities in support of the local union."

"They're not going to get to me, but they'd like to; I'm, like, their number-one target right now," says Alger, who commutes to work from Fallbrook every night. "The drive gives me plenty of time to think...and pray."

Alger has worked in the pressroom, on the second floor of the U-T's Mission Valley production building, for 11 years. Even under the best circumstances, it's not a nice place to spend a seven-and-a-half-hour shift. When the four 30-ton Goss offset presses are running at full speed, cranking out 1000 newspapers a minute, the noise is so loud, Alger says, "it pierces your brain." The pressmen guard against long-term hearing damage by donning ear protection whenever they're on the floor, which forces them to do much of their communicating by sign language. But the ear protection can't keep out the bone-shaking vibrations that pass from the presses through the metal floor, and it does nothing to keep out the odor of oil and ink that permeates the room. And over the last few months, the work environment has actually deteriorated as a press-expansion project and an asbestos-abatement program turned the pressroom into a construction zone.

Alger and his colleagues don't really complain about the noise and the heat and the smell of the place. They see themselves as a special breed, men and women who are tough enough to work in a setting that looks more like Detroit in the '30s than San Diego on the eve of the second millennium. Theirs is a respectable, skilled trade that places them at a pivotal point in the production of the daily paper. The pay isn't so bad, either, they admit. First-year apprentices earn between $12 to $13 an hour and top-scale journeymen take home about $20.50 an hour.

What they do grouse about is the fact that for six years now they have worked the odd hours and the weekend shifts the job requires without a contract. What they want, they say, is a new contract that does three things: gives the workers a 5 percent, across-the-board pay increase; allows the workers to continue participating in the union pension; and reduces their monthly health-insurance premium from $180 to $10 -- the same amount non-union employees pay. The company's response? Imposing a contract that gives them nothing, Finneran says.

So, the pressroom workers say they intend to step up their campaign to publicize their dispute with the U-T with radio ads and some TV spots and may ask union members in San Diego and Imperial Counties to cancel their subscriptions to the paper.

"We're not going to lose," says Alger. "There's just no doubt about it. We're going to ratchet this thing up to the level they can't take it, but one step at a time, showing one more thing every day, one more thing that we can do. Hopefully, though, they'll say, 'Enough' before we have to go through a full-blown boycott and really hurt circulation and really take the image of this company down.

"We've got just incredible support coming from locals across the country. I have to go down to the union hall every day and get checks. What's happened is the international president has taken us on and made us a pivotal point for this union throughout the country. He realizes that if management is able to come in and take a group as dedicated to the union principles as we are and destroy us, then they can do it anywhere in the country, and the GCIU will never be able to sign a contract in any of their other shops."

Kelleher is a former assistant business editor at the Union-Tribune.

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