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Labor Tension Grows at Union Leader

Monday was the deadline for employees at the Union Leader to ratify a new 2-year contract. Company negotiators said failure to reach a new deal would result in layoffs and a 10% salary cut. Reporters, editors, advertising staff and others at the paper have unanimously rejected the new deal. Workers say this latest round of cutbacks threatens the paper’s standing.

Norm Welsh started working at the state’s largest newspaper back in the late 80’s.

He remembers those times fondly.

“We used to all go out after deadline, a whole bunch of us usually every night after work and do a postmortem on the paper over beers or other libations.”

I ask Welsh, a copy editor who heads up the Manchester Newspaper Guild union, what morale is like now.

“Huh. I laugh, but it shouldn’t be laughed at. It’s horrible.”

The mood has deteriorated thanks in large part to what union members like Welsh see as the contract ultimatum issued by management on September 1st.

“They said, we need you to take another pay cut or we are going to lay off 6 people by November 1st.”

That’s veteran Union Leader reporter Mark Heyward.

Heyward, who is married to an NHPR employee, says the proposal was designed to save $600,000 a year.

The deal required employees to work 5 hours longer- for less 10% less pay.

This comes two years after employees already agreed to a double digit cut.

Overall, the offer would leave janitors, circulation staff, editors and others earning 22% less than what they did in 2008.

Heyward says rank and file workers aren’t in the position to absorb another hit.

“Some people are just barely surviving. Some people are taking part-time jobs. Other people fear about losing their houses. Some people have already sold their houses.”

Heyward says union members understand that circulation is down, advertising is down...that the whole newspaper business isn’t what it used to be.

That said, top union officials and their accountant were given a cursory look at the paper’s financials.

Over the last year, the paper has seen a bump in Sunday circulation.

What bothers union members, says Norm Welsh is that it appears bosses aren’t being asked to share in the sacrifice.

“It may be that they need some concessions. We are not so sure how or why it all needs to come from the Newspaper Guild.”

Tax documents show that the paper’s President and Publisher Joe McQuaid cut his own pay along with his employees in 2009, going from $234,000 to $212,000.

But last year, his compensation jumped up to $243,000.

Another executive took a similar cut in 2009, and received a compensation increase in 2010.

McQuaid declined comment for this story.

Sometime in early November, union members are expecting management to make good on its promise to lay off 6 employees, including three senior reporters.

Welsh says recent buyouts, cutbacks and ultimatums are compromising the paper’s ability to do what it does: deliver the news.

“We’ve been able to maintain quality through that in terms of our coverage. I think we are sort of the make or break point, we are down to the bone.”

The current contract officially expires at the end of the year.

Workers are anticipating that the Union Leader will continue its push to bring on more part-timers with no benefits.

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