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It’s 2015: Would the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News really go on strike?

Updated 7: 30 p.m. Wednesday: PMN spokeswoman Amy Buckman said employees received a message today from the company which included the following: “While the Guild has indicated that they may take a strike authorization vote as early as next week, rest assured that even if they do strike, we will continue to print and deliver important news, interesting features and valuable online content to serve the readers, subscribers and advertisers of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com.”

Original story:

Journalists who work for Philadelphia’s two daily newspapers might actually go on strike.

Now, extensions have been granted and talks still continue, but the sides are far enough apart that strike posters have circulated through the newsrooms at 801 Market St, and a Change.org petition is gathering signatures now. So a massive contingent of Philadelphia’s journalists could walk off the job, which would literally stop the presses and cease paid daily newspaper production in the city.

At issue: Newspaper Guild members want the Philadelphia Media Network (which owns The Inquirer, The Daily News and Philly.com) to provide stronger benefits and increased company contributions to healthcare funds. They’re also pushing management to retain seniority provisions, so it would be last-in, first-out for newer employees if the company resorts to layoffs.

And while the union this past week agreed to an extension on negotiations, it’s still planning to hold a strike authorization vote in the near future and could move forward in advancing those plans anyway.

But… it’s 2015. Would the journalists who produce daily newspapers (not a healthy business!) really walk off the job? Threatening strike is a time-honored tactic used by unions to get what they want at the negotiating table. And the journalists who produce Philly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dailies have walked off the job before. In the ’70s and ’80s, newspaper journalists in Philadelphia went on 11 strikes, including one that shut down the papers for 46 days in 1985 — the last time journalists went on strike.

This could now happen again at a time when newspapers across the country are rapidly losing readership, revenue and valuation. The company was bought by H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest last year for $88 million along with Lewis Katz, a local philanthropist who was killed in a plane crash shortly after buying the company. That valuation is a far cry from what the media giant was once worth.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening (and what happened) when it comes to Philly newspaper strikes:

What can’t they agree on?

PMN management and the Newspaper Guild have been going back and forth with negotiations, in many ways revolving around the healthcare plan the company’s hoping to provide to employees.

Union leaders say in a Change.org petition that “employees have given up raises and accepted unpaid furloughs, loss of pension benefits, and higher contributions for health care for years. Now we need assistance from the company to protect this basic right to a health care plan that covers employees and families, promotes healthy lifestyles, provides routine preventive care and assistance when employees need it most for illnesses.”

The union has also complained of weakened seniority when it comes to layoffs, no raises and an apparent refusal to bring Philly.com employees under the same contract as The Inquirer and The Daily News. 

The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents editorial, advertising, finance and circulation staffs, says employees will have to make up a $2 million shortfall in the Health and Wellness Fund if it’s not taken care of by the company.

As part of these negotiations, union members are critical of PMN owner Gerry Lenfest, a billionaire philanthropist they say is condemning journalists and employees “to conditions reminiscent of 19th Century sweatshops.”

What are they going to do about it?

Contracts expired in February, and the Guild has granted management several extensions along the way, including the most recent one. PMN spokeswoman Amy Buckman told Billy Penn on Friday that at the suggestion of the federal mediator, both sides have agreed to a contract extension through June 27.

Meanwhile, Guild leadership says that they plan to hold a strike authorization vote next week, and that negotiators will meet with International Guild leaders the week of June 8 “to advance strike preparations.”

Buckman said PMN is still hopeful that a resolution can be reached.

“Obviously one would have to plan for contingencies,” she said, “but at this point, the priority is reaching an agreement.”

The spokeswoman wouldn’t get into specifics about PMN’s contingency plan if a strike authorization vote would go through and send hundreds of employees striking. But a strike could — in theory — shut down production of both newspapers.

The editorial staffs at both papers and Philly.com would be slashed to mostly just supervisors and freelance or part time reporters and photographers.

So is this strike realistic?

Hard to say. Picket signs are already circulating through the office and journalists have posted images of them on social media. Some employees have said publicly that the Guild is more organized than it has been in years.

But nationally, daily newspaper strikes are uncommon. The last time it happened in Philadelphia was the fall of 1985, when a walkout shut down both of the city’s major newspapers for 46 days (hence the “I Survived” T-shirt pictured above.) At the time, their combined circulation was around 900,000 daily, and 4,700 staff members walked out after not being able to agree with management over pay and job security.

Because employees on strike aren’t paid, some had to secure part-time jobs to pay their own bills. Current Inquirer editor Bill Marimow was a reporter at the time and drove a cab during a 22-day strike in February 1977. During the 1985 strike, he covered the MOVE Commission hearings for USA Today and worked as a consultant to 20/20.

“It was trench warfare,” said Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, who was deeply involved union activity in 1985. “It was just one side waiting out the other.”

Between 1970 and 1985, there were 11 strikes of varying lengths. Bykofsky remembers one in the mid-70s that lasted for 23 days in which he literally had to teach people how to picket: Where to stand, how to hold the signs, and what the interference rules of the picket line are and aren’t.

He said journalists on strike had successfully shut down The Daily News and The Inquirer at the time, and during the strike had turned their attention to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, a now-defunct paper that had added the Daily News and the Inquirer names to the top of its masthead during the strike.

Naturally, that didn’t sit well with the unions.

“It was like Hitler backing Russia,” Bykofsky said. “We had now closed down The Inquirer and The Daily News. Now we had to close down the Bulletin.”

So in the winter of ’77, the union members split their time between 400 N. Broad St. (the newspapers’ old offices) and a new picket location at 30th and Market streets. Pickets lay in the road in front of police cars and backed up traffic for a mile to keep Sunday papers from being distributed.

The Evening Bulletin gave in and removed The Daily News and Inquirer nameplates from its masthead.

“We breathed a deep sigh of relief,” Bykofsky said. “We were almost at a breaking point.”

What happens when newspapers strike?

A 1997 strike in Detroit was once called “the strike to end all newspaper strikes” when it caused 2,000 people to end up jobless.

That strike came at the end of what The New York Times called “the third wave” of newspaper strikes, after a strike at The New York Daily News took place in 1990 and the a walkout at The Pittsburgh Press and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1992 resulted in the closing of The Press.

“This is the last setting where you have a big-city paper and the kind of labor structure that produced this strike,” an expert told The Times in 1997. “There may be some little actions here and there, but this one scared the unions too much, and it scared the owners, too.”

But things for newspapers are much worse now than they were in even 1997. In 2006, the papers were sold for $604.9 million. In 2014, they were sold for $88 million.

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Pew Charitable Trust

Though the sale to Lenfest represents an increase in the price of the papers, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall valuation. Even since 2012, circulation continues to trend downward.

What’s a strike mean for the news in the city?

The number of reporters and photographers in this city would drop dramatically. The Inquirer has a newsroom of 200 people, The Daily News has 68 and Philly.com has 45. While some of those are management, the majority would walk off the job in the event of a strike.

And it would be up to other news organizations in the city to make up for the loss of news coverage, between the TV stations, the alt-weeklies, Philly Mag and — ahem — smaller local news sites. There’d also be increased reliance on the Associated Press, a wire service that provides stories to news organizations that pay for it.

The AP only has a handful of reporters and photographers based in Philly, though. Others located in Harrisburg, Trenton, Washington, D.C. and New York could assist in news coverage as they do when big news happens like the recent Amtrak train derailment.

If a strike happens now, what might it mean for the company?

When journalists go on strike, usually the goal is to shut down production of the newspapers entirely. Circulation dropped after the strikes in the 1970s and 1980s, but Bykofsky pointed out that those were different times, saying that back in those days, people really missed the newspaper and were hungry to get it back.

Nowadays, newspaper circulation at both The Inquirer and The Daily News is trending downward, with the Inky circulating less than 160,000 copies a day and the DN less than 50,000.

But what could sting the most for the media network could be what might happen to Philly.com, the home base website for both papers and a handful of reporters who work exclusively for the website.

It’s unclear if the leadership of the unions would move to shut down Philly.com as part of a strike, but there are Philly.com employees who are members who could walk out on their jobs.

“It will hurt Philly.com more than The Inquirer and The Daily News,” Bykofsky said. “We are down to our readers. Philly.com will just be a bunch of crap.”

This story was updated to correct information about a picket outside The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin offices. The strike took place in 1977.

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