Friday, March 16, 2007
COLUMN: "Sticky state of the union in Vermont"
STICKY STATE OF THE UNION IN VERMONT
BY ALEX BEAM, Globe Staff Writer
As goes Brattleboro, so goes . . . Bennington?
In a disproportionate matching of forces, Denver-based newspaper magnate
William Dean Singleton is seeking to crush a unionization drive at the tiny
(circulation 11,150) Brattleboro Reformer, a daily newspaper in bucolic
The reason Singleton's minions have already fired the principal organizer of
the nascent union and dispatched their top labor executive to the Green
Mountain State is obvious: Singleton's 170-newspaper MediaNews Group empire
includes about 20 small and medium-size New England newspapers, from the Lowell
Sun to the Bennington (Vt.) Banner, and he wants to keep them union-free. "We
don't believe it's in the best interests of our employees to be represented by
a union," says Singleton's vice president of human resources, Charles Kamen,
who parachuted in to Brattleboro on Monday.
The drama began unfolding at the Reformer last week when reporter Eesha
Williams informed his superiors that a unionization drive was underway. By the
end of the week, it emerged that 24 of the paper's 41 white-collar staffers had
opted to join PACE, the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers
International Union. One of the staffers' key grievances concerns wages. Citing
data culled from the Newspaper Guild and from MediaNews Group, union organizers
say that the average salary at Singleton's five unionized newspapers, including
his flagship The Denver Post, is double the $20,000 yearly wage in Brattleboro.
Shortly after announcing the union drive, Williams was suspended indefinitely
without pay, and on Tuesday he was fired.
The paper dumped Williams, Kamen says, "for a breach of journalistic ethics."
This refers to a call that Williams placed to Senator Jim Jeffords's Washington
office seeking a statement of support for the union drive. Williams says he
made the call on his own time and left his home number on Jeffords's answering
The gloves are off. Reformer management has already distributed two letters to
all employees, urging them to reconsider. The first letter, from Andrew Mick,
the Pittsfield-based president of Singleton's New England Newspapers Inc.,
notes that "being a union member does not guarantee better wages, hours or
benefits . . . The signing of a union card is the same as signing a blank check
made payable to the union." A second letter made several unflattering
allegations about the management of PACE.
In a pattern that he followed in many of his newspaper acquisitions, Singleton
refused to acknowledge the preexisting union when he bought the
Pittsfield-based Berkshire Eagle in 1995. He laid off staff, lowered wages -
and returned the paper to profitability, if not to editorial excellence. A
veteran of the Eagle's union wars predicts a tough fight for the Brattleboro
insurgents, who must now begin a lengthy process of certifying their union with
the National Labor Relations Board - while MediaNews Group lawyers and
executives fight them every step of the way. "I hope they know what they're
getting into," this staffer says.
"With Dean, everything is just business," says Tony Mulligan, administrative
officer of the Newspaper Guild union at The Denver Post. "If it's part of his
strategy to work with the union, as he has done here, then he'll do that. If
taking on the union is part of his plan, then he'll do that instead."
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