With last night’s ratification of a new labor contract, the stage is set for some real fireworks over just what it takes to fire staff at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and philly.com.
The Philadelphia Newspaper Guild, which represents employees in advertising, editorial, finance, philly.com and circulation, put out an internal bulletin late last night, declaring its members had voted to ratify a new contract with Interstate General Media, its latest parent company, by an overwhelming, nearly six to one margin.
The contract preserves the seniority provision, forcing employers to start with less tenured employees during layoffs, and ensures the current print schedules of the Inquirer and Daily News will continue for two years. But the deal also contains an entirely new provision for Guild members, a written performance review system that the new owners apparently consider an important victory. “This is the first time in the history of the enterprise that there are performance standards at the ‘sole discretion’ of management in the Guild contract, which can lead to termination,” says one source close to the negotiations.
At first blush, instituting a formal employee review process may not sound like such a big deal. After all, employees in pretty much any industry are subject to at least an annual review, at which time managers can instruct employees on areas in which they need to improve.
In terms of establishing a written record of an employee’s service, formal reviews are often a big step toward building a case to promote, reward, discipline and fire staff. But previous Guild deals contained no such provision.
Traditionally, firing an employee at, say, the Inquirer has required serious, even prohibitive labor on behalf of managers, who have seen attempts to terminate a staff member’s employment as one long hair pull with little chance of a successful result.
This contract, however, might set up a new battleground, on which management wields more power than before.
The crucial paragraph reads:
The Employer will, in its sole discretion, develop, communicate and implement performance management systems applicable to all Guild members. … The Employer will, in its sole discretion, create performance standards of both a qualitative and quantitative nature and develop and implement a performance evaluation instrument. This instrument may provide for the delivery of performance improvement and/or corrective action [over 90 days]. Failure to comply with a performance improvement plan within the specified time may result in dismissal subject only to the good and reasonable cause standard.
The language isn’t sexy, but it emerged from a heated dispute during negotiations. “Originally, they kept asking us to concede on seniority,” says Newspaper Guild executive Bill Ross. “And we weren’t going to do that.”
Ross says the new deal preserves previous union protections. For instance, employees being disciplined will have the right to union representation. Further, the grievance process remains the same. “They can fire people only for good and reasonable cause,” says Ross, “and if they think they can fire someone, in just 90 days, when they are supposed to be trying to rehabilitate them because they need help, we’ll file a grievance. That’s what we do.”
Publisher Bob Hall says the provision is “new to the guild but no different than what’s in place at a lot of newspapers. The contract language speaks for itself.”
Former Inquirer managing editor Anne Gordon, however, suggests the new provision is a “concession that management, many managements, have long wanted.”
Gordon, now senior vice president of media and communications with the Philadelphia Eagles, says owners going back to Knight Ridder always sought a formal review process. The Guild always shot it down. She says that, over time, the new provision will make it easier for management to discipline and/or fire underperforming staff: “I say ‘over time’ because I believe that conversations about performance require time to be corrective. Someone has to hear that management is uncomfortable with their performance. They have to be given time to react, and the rest of the organization has to see that they were treated fairly—that management handled it in a just fashion—and then there is a consequence if that improvement didn’t happen.”