Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lee Enterprises Breaks Written Agreement, Screws Over Former Employees

I know people probably don't feel like reading about politics today, but this is an important story and I for one am thankful that I've been lucky enough to never have been in the unfortunate situation of my livelihood depending on the actions of unethical actors who care more about profit margins than the employees who spent their lives working their ass off for the company.

From the St. Louis Newspaper Guild:
Proving once more that the Post-Dispatch’s corporate owner has no heart – or holiday spirit – Lee Enterprises today notified that paper’s former employees who retired under the Guild contract in effect from June ‘04 to March ‘10 that their free medical coverage was being eliminated; those retirees would now have to pay 100% of the premium cost to keep their health care.

Such action flies in the face of contractual language in effect when those members retired and this office will soon file a grievance on their behalf. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Lee has launched an economic attack on former employees living on fixed incomes, so we have a pretty good idea of what their response will be and the likely course of action that will then ensue.

A few years ago Lee announced that they were doing the same thing to Guild members who left under a former (blue) contract that ran from 1994 to 2004. Initially it was for 30% of the cost but last year they raised that amount to 100%.

After that first assault, this office filed a grievance which was denied – based on the fact that retirees are no longer part of the bargaining unit and are no longer represented. Lee also maintained that expired contracts cannot be grieved (note that they waited to do this latest assault until after the yellow contract expired, as well). We countered, asserting that the right to medical care in retirement was a ‘vested’ right and that it vested the day the employee went out the door. All that other stuff about bargaining units and contract expiration – while nominally true – could not trump it.

They refused to participate in the grievance process, so we filed for arbitration. They refused to arbitrate, so we filed a federal lawsuit. They moved to dismiss and we cleared that hurdle. Along the way were other grievances, other filings and a bunch of other stuff (to read it all, check out the rest of our website) and we now find ourselves having won the initial lawsuit and preparing for appeal. After the judge’s decision in our case, I was hopeful that Lee would not attempt the same thing with our later retirees. But no. They did and here we go again.

However, while much of this looks and feels like deja vu, there are some notable differences. For openers, many of those who left during this last contract, left during one of two buyouts offered in 2005 and 2007. Many who took the buyout had not yet reached the age of 55; they were lured into retirement with enhanced credits for pension calculations and cash. And added to those lovely parting gifts was the written promise of free retiree medical. One has to wonder – it’s bad enough trying to circumvent our expired collective bargaining agreement – how do these scrooges plan to weasel out of such affirming letters on company masthead and upon which the ink is barely dry?

It’s terribly disturbing to realize that a lot of former coworkers will soon be without health care and are still more than ten years away from medicare eligibility. What does Lee Enterprises expect them to do? It would seem incredibly callous for corporate to take the position of, “Well, that’s their problem” when it was Lee who enticed them into retiring in the first place! This latest action by our corporate overlords goes beyond mere greed – it is a despicable act by an outfit that has apparently decided that employees who can remember JFK, Viet Nam and the Beatles are too expensive to keep around and are willing to lie to their faces in order to sever that relationship.

As before, the Guild will stand with its retired members and take all appropriate measures to hold Lee Enterprises accountable for this latest attack. Please know that the Guild office will be closed on Thanksgiving and the day after. We will file all necessary paperwork early next week and we will announce a meeting for our affected members sometime in mid-December. Until then, even though this action could be financially devastating, please try to not let this ruin your holidays – believe me, these people aren’t worth it. Growing up, my mother had a big sign in her kitchen. It read: Illegitimi non carborundum. Loosely translated, it means, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ Please hang in there; your Guild has your back and we’re fighting for you. In the meantime, if you can’t afford to pay 100% of Lee’s stated premiums and you have to go out and buy cheaper insurance, please keep good records and all receipts.

We will keep you posted on events as they occur.

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