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Press operators at L.A. Times hold union vote

Activists contend that representation by the Teamsters would help protect jobs and benefits. Management says it's unnecessary.

January 06, 2007|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Officials at the National Labor Relations Board are scheduled to count ballots this morning to see whether Los Angeles Times press operators have authorized union representation by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

As many as 300 of the production employees were eligible to vote Thursday and Friday on whether to unionize the newspaper's two printing facilities, in downtown Los Angeles and Costa Mesa.

Union activists contended that representation by the Teamsters' Graphic Communications Conference would help them stave off job cuts and protect employee benefits, which they said had deteriorated since Tribune Co. bought the paper and the rest of Times Mirror Co. in 2000.

Times management responded that the press operators already received higher pay and had better working conditions than virtually all of their peers around the nation. The newspaper has defeated five previous organizing attempts by its production employees over the last 16 years.

"We are really confident," said Ronnie Pineda, a veteran press operator who supports the union. "We feel we have got a majority this time."

Times executives said they believed that they would prevail. They contended that union representation would make employer-employee relations more adversarial, without improving the lot of the average worker.

"We have a good thing going and we should keep it going together," Times Publisher David Hiller said in a videotaped message to press operators. "We have the best wages and working conditions outside of New York City."

Pro-union workers said that the organization bid grew out of two events: The Times' closure of its printing facility in the San Fernando Valley about a year ago, costing 47 pressroom employees their jobs; and the possible sale or breakup of Tribune, the paper's Chicago-based parent, which put itself up for auction in September.

"There were years and years and years no one ever thought their position would be in jeopardy," Pineda said. "But no one feels safe any longer."

The pro-union employees said the pressroom staff had been cut by more than 50% since the Tribune takeover. The company said the cutbacks had not been that severe.

Those press operators who remain said they had seen their workload increase. They said they operated the paper's massive presses with crews about half the size of their counterparts at Newsday, Tribune's paper in Long Island in New York.

A journeyman in The Times' pressroom makes about $61,000 a year. Recent annual salary increases of 2% or less have mostly been meaningless because of increased payments for medical insurance, Pineda said.

The company said employees contributed about 25% of the cost of their medical care, the same as they did in 2000.

The Times has campaigned fiercely throughout its history against unions -- both inside the paper and in Southern California. One of the few successful union drives came in the late 1960s, when the paper's Los Angeles-based press operators signed a three-year contract.

Hiller and others in Times management have been using that brief fling with unionization against the Teamsters. They said by the time the contract ended, the union employees were making 11% less than workers at the Orange County plant who had remained out of the union.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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