Hearst's hit man
Chronicle publisher Frank "Darth" Vega has a secret plan to keep the paper publishing even if there's a strike

By Steven T. Jones

Guardian photo by Mirissa Neff On the line: The San Francisco Web Pressmen and Prepress Workers' Union and other union members staged a rally July 11 to demand that the San Francisco Chronicle give its workers a fair contract. Chronicle brass has said the workers need to take a big hit because the paper is losing money, but the unions say the paper is being mismanaged. "When they want to point the finger at us, we need to point the finger right back," said Chuck Davis of the Northern California Mailers Union, flipping his middle finger at the Chronicle.
San Francisco Chronicle publisher Frank Vega, facing the possibility of a damaging strike, is doing some serious saber-rattling to intimidate employee unions and has sent a memo to managers describing dramatic procedures that will be put in place if there's labor action this summer.

The new publisher has taken an aggressive bargaining posture with the half-dozen unions whose contracts ended July 1, demanding steep pay and benefit rollbacks, layoffs, and greater management authority to unilaterally make further changes in working conditions.

Vega said he intends to continue publishing the Chronicle every day through any strikes or lockouts, and June 28 he issued a letter and detailed plan to the 300 management employees who would work through a job action. Despite stern warnings in the first paragraph that "your fellow employees could be jeopardized if this information becomes public," the documents were leaked to union members who furnished a copy to the Bay Guardian.

"Do not worry about sleeping quarters or food. We have extensive plans in place to ensure our workforce's needs are more than adequately met," Vega wrote. "I don't want to sound too ominous, but this is serious stuff. We intend to publish and distribute the Chronicle no matter what. We intend to protect our employees and facilities. No matter what."

Hearst Corp. hired Vega in December. As president and chief executive of Detroit Newspapers, Vega continued to publish the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News during a brutal 20-month strike that began in 1995, during which the companies lost hundreds of millions of dollars. The papers never recovered the loss of about one-third of their 1.1 million readers.

Here, Vega's memo (view pdf) calls for the "quick and efficient clear-out of on-site, represented employees whose unions call a strike," the activation of phone trees to bring in all exempt employees on shuttle buses from secret locations, and bringing in cots, bedding, and food so employees can remain in the building for days at a time.

Other memos in the packet include "Tips for Crossing a Picket Line" (such as "drive very slowly as you approach and cross the line. Be prepared to stop quickly if a picketer steps in front of you to try to get your vehicle to touch him") and procedures for "If you are arrested or detained by law enforcement personnel, and that arrest or detention is as a result of you providing services to the San Francisco Chronicle." Vega encourages employees to call the paper's "Incident Command Center," at 764-2855, to report any problems or concerns.

Chronicle spokesperson Patricia Hoyt (who returned the call we placed for Vega) said the newspaper has about 300 managers and other exempt employees who would work through any job action and they would hire more temporary workers if needed. "We will go to outside resources to get the job done as needed," she said.

As the contracts were about to expire, Vega hired the same security firm that he used to battle strikers in Detroit, Vance International, an elite company started by former Secret Service agents that specializes in security for celebrities and companies facing strikes. At the same time, the company installed dozens of new security cameras around Chronicle facilities in San Francisco and Union City, particularly in the work areas of the San Francisco Web Pressmen and Prepress Workers' Union, which has been the most militant of the six unions now in negotiations.

That union's president, Tony Price, said the cameras, security, and unbending demands indicate Vega's desire to break the unions. "Our fear is that they are pushing us to lockout," he said.

Hoyt said the cameras are for the safety of employees and protection of the facility. "We're prepared, and we're doing what we need to do," she said.

The pressmen union held a raucous rally in front of the newspaper on July 11, taunting the publisher, who earned the nickname "Darth Vega" in Detroit, and pledging to stand strong against what their signs labeled "Chronicle/Hearst Corp. Union Busting."

"We aren't going to let union busting happen here in our town," said Tim Paulsen, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, one of a wide variety of labor activists who showed up to march in solidarity with the pressmen and four other Chronicle unions.

Yet conspicuously absent were representatives from the paper's largest union, the Northern California Media Workers Guild, which represents 870 editorial, advertising, and circulation workers. Price said that guild director Doug Cuthbertson had pledged to show up and speak, but Price tried several times to call him or someone from the guild up to the stage, to no avail. Cuthbertson also didn't return our calls seeking comment.

The guild has remained publicly mum on the status of its negotiations. President Michael Cabanatuan (a transportation reporter at the paper) responded to our inquiries with an e-mail that said "There really isn't much to say at this point. We're still talking, we've taken no strike vote and set no strike deadline. All our efforts are focused on reaching a fair contract that helps the newspaper while protecting our members."

Indeed, most rank-and-file guild members profess to know little about the status of negotiations, while the few who do claim to know something grumble that the guild hasn't stood strong against management, letting employee grievances go nowhere and citing rumors that the guild has already agreed to up to 50 layoffs and one less week of vacation time for senior staff.

Perhaps even more critical to the unions' ability to advocate for their members are Chronicle demands for greatly expanded "Management Rights," usurping much of the control over working conditions and job classifications that unions now enjoy.

"We've tried to bargain, but they aren't wanting to bargain," Price said. "Ninety percent of their proposal is about control. It's not only the economic concessions; it's designed to break down the rights that we've fought to retain."

In the paper's latest proposal to the pressmen union, a June 15 (view pdf) document obtained by the Bay Guardian, the "management rights" section is one of the longest and most detailed, claiming many rights that are now subject to collective bargaining and declaring, "The Employer shall not be required to bargain with the union concerning actions taken pursuant to this provision of the Agreement." One press worker told us it would effectively create "company-sponsored unions."

To get an expert opinion on the provisions, we submitted them to Mike Whitty, who is teaching business ethics this summer at USF Business School and is based out of the University of Detroit Mercy, where he had the opportunity to study Vega during the Detroit newspaper strike.

"Unless we accept the management clause language as simply an opening ploy to bargain from, the nature of the sweeping language implies a total philosophical rejection of shared governance under a collective bargaining agreement," Whitty said.

Hoyt would not discuss management rights or any specific negotiating point. Yet Whitty said Hearst Corp. clearly hired Vega to defeat the unions.

"They picked him up because he had some frontline experience in labor towns with entrenched unions," Whitty said.

While the Chronicle has complained of posting $62 million in losses last year and argued that unions need to help solve that problem, many Chron union workers argue that management demands go beyond economics. That's why they say Vega is trying to "break the unions," which Whitty said is part of a larger trend in corporate America.

"There is a desire to break the trades, to break the crafts," Whitty said. "And the public is either distracted, apathetic, not reading, or perhaps just not appreciative of the role unions play in society as a check-and-balance system."

E-mail Steven T. Jones