The daily union blues

The polite description for it is concessionary contract. News Hits calls it a reaming — at least for the unions.

Workers represented by four unions at the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press voted to take it in the behind on Sunday when they ratified a three-year contract that requires them to partially pay for monthly health care premiums and make other “concessions.”

It is the first time in 23 years that workers will have to pay for health care coverage, says Lou Mleczko, chairman of the Metropolitan Council of Newspaper Unions, which represents about 1,400 workers and 1,100 retirees.

Mleczko says family health care coverage will cost workers about $70 a month the first year of the contract and about $120 a month by the third year; benefits will cost less for those who earn less than $35,000 and do not have family coverage. It is better than what the company originally offered, says Mleczko. Detroit Newspapers tried to get workers to accept a health plan that would have them paying about $250 a month, he says.

The other kick in the pants is that new workers will not be entitled to health care benefits when they retire. Mleczko says that Detroit Newspapers, which operates both daily newspapers, wanted to eliminate health benefits for current and future retirees. But the union managed to preserve coverage for existing retirees and current workers, he says.

Rising health care costs made it necessary for workers to chip in, says Tim Kelleher, Detroit Newspapers senior vice president of labor relations.

“If you look at health care costs, they have gone up 15 to 20 percent annually,” says Kelleher, who is glad both parties came to an agreement before the previous contract ended.

With the contract due to expire in January, Detroit Newspapers and the four voting locals — Teamsters Local 373, Detroit Newspaper Guild Local 22, Teamsters Local 2040 and Graphic Communications International Union Local 18 — have been negotiating since the spring. Under terms of the agreement, it will take effect immediately and remain in place until January 2007.

It is the second contract to be finalized since the bitter and lengthy labor dispute began in 1995 when about 2,500 workers went on strike and were later locked out of their jobs. Under the 2000 contract, which ended the strike, an “open shop” was created, whereby workers at the paper were no longer compelled to join a union — a move that significantly reduced the clout of those bargaining on behalf of employees.

M.L. Elrick, a Detroit Free Press writer and member of the Guild bargaining team, says that the unions didn’t have much negotiating power since the number of dues-paying members has declined. Only about 55 percent of the represented workers pay dues, says Elrick.

“When you go into a fight like that with a rubber knife, it was amazing we were able to achieve anything,” he says.

Elrick says that an open shop weakened the union and helped contribute to the current health care premium co-payments.

“In the end it will cost them more,” says Elrick of non-dues-paying members. “It’s like a roommate that doesn’t pay rent, but bitches when the heat goes off.”

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