Roughly 80 design, production, distribution and advertising staff at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went on strike Thursday in protest of the termination of their health care coverage.
The workers — who are members of the Communications Workers of America, Teamsters and Pressmen’s unions — wrote in a press release that the Post-Gazette has refused to bargain in good faith and engaged in multiple “unfair labor practices” against its unions. The unions have been without a contract for nearly six years and employees have not had a raise in 16 years, according to the release.
The last straw was the loss of their health coverage. The workers say that their health insurance provider asked for an additional $19 per week in order to maintain benefits, but the Post-Gazette and its owner Block Communications refused to cover the increase in contributions. Employees were paying more than $7,300 per year for health insurance before they lost coverage on Oct. 1.
“(I)t is unconscionable that any employee has gone 16 years without any increase in pay and the employer refuses to pay an additional $19.00 per week so that the employers can maintain their current health program — a program they currently have and are paying a substantial price for out of their own pockets,” the workers wrote.
As part of their strike, the unions are asking readers to cancel their subscriptions and businesses to refrain from advertising with the newspaper. Journalists at the Post-Gazette are represented by the NewsGuild and are not participating in the strike. However, they have withdrawn their bylines from their work in solidarity.
Post-Gazette director of marketing Allison Latcheran wrote in an emailed statement that the newspaper will continue to publish seven days a week.
“The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has offered the unions several options that would ensure the continuation of the affected union employees’ healthcare,” Latcheran wrote. “One of these proposals included a 9% wage increase and enrollment in the company’s healthcare plan, which currently covers 2,600 Block Communications employees, including several unions, company executives and staff at the PG. It is not clear why this proposal, nor any of the others, is unsatisfactory to the unions and their membership.”
The unions wrote in their press release that their members would not see much benefit from a 9% wage increase since 8% of their wages already go to health care coverage. They would also be required to join a high deductible plan that could double what they currently pay, and the company would have the power to unilaterally change or terminate parts of their plan.
The Post-Gazette has had a tumultuous relationship with its unions in recent years. The paper has six bargaining units, but “has not granted a single union proposal that would improve the employees’ benefits or working conditions” since it hired an anti-union Tennessee law firm six years ago, according to the news release.
Earlier this year, journalists at the Post-Gazette and The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, which is also owned by Block Communications, were left unable to access their health insurance due to errors made by the company.
The National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that helps enforce U.S. labor law, has issued multiple complaints against Block Communications. Most recently, last month the NLRB found that the company illegally laid off two employees. In April, it found that the company had “bargained with no intention of reaching agreement” during contract negotiations with its unionized journalists.
In 2019, a federal arbitrator ruled that the Post-Gazette had unlawfully refused to pay increases in health care premiums for its unionized journalists. That rule was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit last year, and the newspaper was required to pay more than $100,000 in reimbursement money to members of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh.
A number of recent conflicts between Block Communications and its employees have exploded into public view. Reporters at the Post-Gazette and The Blade have accused the Block family of political bias and have cited their leadership as the reason for mass resignations at the papers.
One of the most high-profile clashes took place in 2020 when the Post-Gazette barred Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter, from covering Black Lives Matter protests that summer. Johnson and another Black journalist at the paper later resigned.
The unions representing journalists at the Post-Gazette and The Blade told Columbia Journalism Review that between 2019 and 2021, roughly 94 of their 238 members had left.