News Hole

A chasm gapes between the Post-Dispatch and the Suburban Journals -- even though they're both Pulitzer holdings

Pepe says there's nothing unusual or unfair about the disparity in pay: "Well, you're talking about two different companies. If you want to talk about the New York Times and the Post-Dispatch, you could argue the same thing. You have to look at size of company and the skill sets of its employees. With the Post, you're looking at an organization that is tremendously larger and at a higher financial position in the marketplace [compared with the Journals]. The pay we offer is going to be commensurate to the earnings of this company, and our employees know that. I think Pulitzer's been very clear that as we grow this company, we're interested in sharing in that growth with our employees. We want them to feel a sense of ownership and pride in the results of their work."

Journals management may want the newsroom staff to wait until the economy gets better and the company grows, but at least some of those staffers aren't sitting still.

Joe Harris and Julie Kelemen
Joe Harris and Julie Kelemen

They may be shopping their résumés around, but the options are limited. "The journalism business is very competitive," says Kelemen, 41, a copy editor with the Journals since 1997, "and that's what drives salaries down. It's not easy to go someplace else if you want to stay in this line of work. My choices are limited -- the Post, the RFT and a few other papers. Sometimes people in the company will say, 'If you're not happy, why not go someplace else?' I love this sort of work. I feel like this is what I was called to do, but I don't have the freedom to move to another town. I have a spouse and a child, and I'm pretty rooted here."

So Kelemen and Cole fight the lonely battle of getting their co-workers to sign the little off-white cards to indicate support for unionization. Herb Goodrick, executive secretary of the Newspaper Guild, says the union would like to get 60 percent of the employees to sign cards, even though only 30 percent are needed under National Labor Relations Board rules. Once the signature requirement is met, a union can be set up if more than 50 percent of full-time employees vote to do so. If that happens, collective bargaining begins.

That's not likely to happen very soon. Asked just how many signatures have been gathered, Goodrick is cagey. "For the sake of the campaign, we don't think it's wise to reveal how many signatures we have," he says. "Let's just say we've got the required 30 percent, but we're shooting for a sufficient percentage to make us believe that we would win the election." Besides, he says, the numbers change from week to week. "There's a tremendous amount of turnover at the Journals. For every two people you sign up, one leaves.

"We've been working on this thing since 1988," he notes, "trying to build support, trying to explain advantages of being represented by union. The wages are pitiful over there at the Journals."

But Goodrick is not in the trenches, as Cole and Kelemen are. They know all too well the potholes and speed bumps that litter the road to Unionville. "The first meeting was back in October, at Julie's house," says Cole. "We had 30 people show up from various pubs." A "pub," in Journals parlance, is not a tavern but a publication. The Journals group consists of 38 pubs from nine different pub groups, or offices, located in St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County and the Metro East. This far-flung operation is perhaps the biggest obstacle to solidarity. "We don't even know half the people we supposedly work with," says Cole, "because they're in different offices, all spread out. You can't recruit people in the lunchroom, because you don't have same lunchroom. We tried picnics. We handbill at the quarterly meetings. Mostly, these days, it's got to be phone work."

At the start, they preached to the choir, and the choir readily signed the cards. What remained were the holdouts, the skeptics. They needed extra convincing. Says Kelemen, "I have noticed that, because the Journals are lower-paying, we get a lot of young people straight out of school who are not really familiar with unions -- what they are or what they can do and why they exist. Union affiliation in this country has been going down in recent years, plus newspaper guilds no longer are going on campuses, and so there's a lot of educating to do on our part."

Complacency is another roadblock. "Sometimes," says Kelemen, "I sense they don't want to rock the boat. They may have heard something or read something, saw something on TV that turned them off to unions. Also, there are a lot of people working there with spouses who earn enough income for both of them. That's my situation. My husband makes enough money, but if I had to support this household on my own, I couldn't do it."

And so the little off-white cards are trickling in. "This is a pretty low-key organizing effort," says Kelemen. "We're not out there with pamphlets and banners every day, agitating and all that. Early on, last fall, we got a pretty good idea who was with us, who wasn't. After that, the real assertive kind of organizing doesn't work. You can call a person who's on the fence a couple times, and if they stay on the fence, you can pretty much assume that's where they'll stay -- or they'll say, 'Don't bug me anymore,' and we honor that. So now it's at a slower and more challenging stage where you try and talk to people one on one."

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