SAN FRANCISCO — Union and management negotiators for major newspapers here and in San Jose continued to talk Thursday in an effort to avert a strike set for 4:59 p.m. today.
While spokesmen for the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle said they doubted that there would be a strike, union negotiators, citing management's call for an 18-month wage freeze, said a walkout by 5,000 employees was possible.
"My assessment is that we're going to get very close to the deadline or right up to it before we know," said Doug Cuthbertson, executive officer of the Northern California Newspaper Guild. "We've gone through strike votes before, and we've gone up to deadline before. But this one looks more serious."
The talks involve nine unions representing reporters, delivery truck drivers and back shop workers.
A strike now would be particularly damaging because it would hamper news coverage of Tuesday's elections and the closing days of the campaign. This time of year also is a large revenue producer for newspapers because retailers traditionally purchase more advertising space in anticipation of holiday buying.
It was unclear whether the San Francisco and San Jose companies would try to publish in the face of a strike. Examiner Managing Editor Frank McCulloch said he was met by puzzled looks when he asked if the paper had a "contingency plan" to put out the newspaper in case of a strike.
"They tell me not to worry. I'm assured unequivocally that there is going to be no strike," McCulloch said.
"We don't expect a strike," Chronicle Editor William German said. "No plans are being made to put out anything other than the Saturday morning paper in the normal fashion."
Spokesmen at the San Jose Mercury News declined to return phone calls.
Meanwhile, other newspapers were making plans to increase the number of copies sent into San Francisco and San Jose.
"We would definitely step up our circulation run," said Leroy Aarons, executive editor of the Oakland Tribune. The Tribune circulates mainly in the East Bay, but also ships papers to San Francisco and competes with the Mercury News in the southeastern part of the Bay Area.
The Los Angeles Times also was considering sending more papers here if there is a strike, said Clarence W. Speer, an assistant director of circulation.
Union negotiators are seeking 10% pay increases in each year of a three-year contract. Management wants a wage freeze for the first 18 months of the contract, followed by an increase of roughly $25 a week for the last 18 months, according to Cuthbertson. Under the previous contract, which expired in June, beginning reporters made $443 a week, with a top minimum of $711.85 a week.
Negotiators for the Mercury News and San Francisco Newspaper Agency, which represents both San Francisco newspapers, "are angrier than they have ever been before," Cuthbertson said, adding turnout at union meetings "is larger than anyone has ever seen."
"The freeze issue caught the attention of the members," Cuthbertson said.
The unions involved included the Northern California Newspaper Guild, Local 52, the San Jose Newspaper Guild, Local 98, and Teamsters locals in San Francisco and San Jose.