About half of the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial staff were packed into their third floor conference room last Wednesday night. And according to people present, it wasn't a news meeting or a press conference.
Angered over years of concessions, buyouts, lost pension, and sacrificed pay raises, the unionized reporters are organizing to fight steep increases in their health-care costs.
"Someone said they felt insulted," Carl Hall, an officer with the Pacific Media Workers Guild local 39521, which represents the Chronicle in negotations with Hearst Corp., which owns the Chronicle, told me. He was in the room that night, asking Chronicle reporters for a plan of action. "So I asked, 'how many other people feel that way?' Just about every hand went up."
Chronicle staffers have launched a social media campaign against Hearst Corp., which owns the paper, as they both butt heads at the bargaining table -- the Chronicle demanding more health care contributions, and Hearst demanding staffers and reporters switch to a company-provided health care program.
The Chronicle's employees currently get their health care through the Guild. The union bargains for healthcare directly with providers, and employees and Hearst all put into the pot.
In negotiations for the past year, Hearst and the Media Workers Guild haven't been able to come to an agreement about the future of their plan. Hearst wants the Chronicle workers to ditch the Guild-provided health care and sign onto a traditional company health care plan, provided by Hearst. The switch would mean Chronicle workers would lose all health-care bargaining rights, and most employees would see a cost increase -- some premiums going up from around $700 to as much as $3,000 a year, according to the Guild.
"Wealthy @HearstCorp wants to gut healthcare plan at @SFChronicle @SFGate. It's a huge paycut!" tweeted Peter Fimrite, a city reporter at the Chronicle. Chron staffers are tweeting their frustration with Hearst to the hashtag "#makesussick" for the week, according to the Guild.
Adding up the reach of the reporters' Twitter accounts, their tweets have reached at least 100,000 people so far. Chronicle staffers in support of the campaign changed all of their social media avatars into a red square, and are asking that supporters do the same.
There are more than 270 reporters at The Chronicle whose health care is on the line.
The battle for their health plans is coinciding with the first week of The Chronicle's new paywall, with the newspaper asking readers for $14.99 a month to access news online through the newly designed website, SFChronicle.com.
Hearst offered a 1.5 percent pay raise along with the switch to company-provided health care, but employees would still end up losing money in the end, Chronicle staffers said. You can do the calculations yourself with a game the Media Workers Guild created, the "Hearst Health Care" game.
Though the details of the health plans are complex, particularly hard hit in Hearst's proposals would be employees providing health care for their families.
"Raising three young daughters, I'm exposed to every cold and virus you can imagine," Chron photographer Mike Kepka wrote, in an open letter to Hearst. "Now, my rising healthcare costs are eating another hole in my paycheck -- one that would get even bigger under Hearst’s proposed plan."
Fortunately for Kepka, his wife is able to provide healthcare for his family, he wrote. But not everyone at The Chronicle is so fortunate.
As The Chronicle staffers rallied outside of their offices for health care on Mission Street last October, The Guardian spoke to Bernadette Fay, a Chronicle copy editor. She is the sole provider of health care to her family, she said.
Her husband is self employed, her 18-year-old daughter is in college, and her 12-year-old son is in middle school. They all depend on her for their health coverage.
“We've already tightened our belts at my house, as I know many families have -- I take my lunch to work every day; my car is a 1993 Honda civic, and, yes, I ride my bike to work when I can,” she said. Fay is cutting back, but she and her fellow staffers aren't seeing contributions rise from Hearst, who contribute $148 per employee -- for employees with and without families alike. "Frankly, if the Kaiser family plan being offered by (Hearst) is the only option, I'm not sure what we'll do."
Hearst cancelled negotiations on the Chronicle's Guild five separate times between the end of May and October 2, according to a timeline provided by the Pacific Media Workers Guild.
The Guild filed an unfair labor relations complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last November, alleging Hearst was not bargaining in good faith. The NLRB confirmed that it dismissed the case, but with a caveat. "The case is not closed per se-- we issued a merit dismissal letter," said Tim Peck, the assistant to the regional director of the San Francisco branch of the NLRB.
By the time the complaint reached the company’s desk, Hearst had stopped stalling and resumed negotations, rendering the complaint moot. But if Hearst engages in alleged stalling tactics again, Peck said, the old complaint could be reopened. "What it states is that the charge has merit."
The stalling tactic was likely used to push the Guild to the edge, Carl Hall told The Guardian. The Guild's health-care reserve is running a deficit of around $100,000 a month, he said. Without increased contributions from Hearst, the fund will run out of money iin their reserve within the space of a year -- rendering the Guild unable to bargain with health care providers for insurance.
Hearst corp. media representative Lisa Bagley declined to be interviewed, and the Hearst representative at the Chronicle, Marketing Director Michael Keith, said he was unable to discuss ongoing negotiations. "You've gotta ask, and I've gotta say no," Keith said.
The Chronicle's plight struck Alisa Messer, the president of City College of San Francisco's union AFT 2121 with a note of irony. City College employees have been lambasted in the editorial pages of the Chronicle in the past few months as they negotiate for their part-timers to keep their health care -- a rarity in California community colleges.
"We've frequently heard from administrators and The Chronicle that we shouldn't have health care for our part-time employees," Messer said. "But we know those are benefits that workers deserve and need -- that shouldn't be taken away from us, or workers at the Chronicle."
The Guild also reached out to local San Francisco politicians to support Chronicle workers publicly, with Guild representative Kat Anderson speaking with aides from the Board of Supervisors, city insiders said. Supervisors Eric Mar, John Avalos, David Campos, London Breed and Mark Farrell, as well as the mayor, were contacted by The Guardian but did not get back to us by press time.
Hall said all options are on the table. "The idea of going on strike is a little far-fetched right now," he said. "But if we can't bargain in the next period of weeks or months at the negotiating table we'll have to look at options, including those classic union tools."