A little slow getting to this, but as of Friday the Associated Press and the News Media Guild, which represents over 1200 AP workers, have come to a tentative contract agreement.

You will recall two weeks ago that CJR paid a visit to an AP workers’ rally outside the newswire’s Manhattan offices. Protracted negotiations between the Guild and the AP had been going on for almost six months and hinged, at that stage, on the issue of pensions. The AP had agreed not to raise monthly health care contributions or to change the design of the plan. The AP had also agreed to three sets of 1.5 percent raises by the middle of 2013. But no one was moving on retirement plans.

The AP wanted to freeze pensions and change the existing defined benefits plan—through which AP assumes most of the risk—to a defined contributions plan, where employees would assume more risk. The Guild offered a counterproposal on pensions that was rejected and negotiations seemed at an impasse.

The ralliers and union reps I spoke to appeared unwilling to budge: they talked of the sacrifices workers make at the AP—including no pay increases for the past two years—and the light at the end of the tunnel that the newswire’s pension plan provided. AP laid out its case in dollars and cents: revenue is down, changes need to be made. (You can view AP’s Annual Consolidated Report for 2010 here and see whether you think that’s valid enough reasoning.)

Less than two weeks later, both parties have reached a tentative agreement which will soon be voted on by Guild members. In an AP story, the newly proposed pension arrangement is described as being similar to the familiar 401(k).

If the contract is approved, the pension plan would freeze guaranteed monthly retirement benefits at the amounts earned through June 30.

Future retirement contributions would go to a plan that shifts the responsibility for retirement planning and investing to workers. Contributions are defined but benefits are not. Such a plan is similar to a 401(k).

The AP already had stopped offering the traditional pension plan to management employees hired since 2005 and union-covered employees since March 2006. Those newer employees receive 3 percent of salary in the defined-contribution plan. All employees are also eligible to participate in a 401(k) plan. For union employees, the AP contributes up to 3 percent of salary to a 401(k).

The new agreement would eliminate the 401(k) match for union-covered employees. The AP would contribute 6 percent of salary to the defined-contribution plan. That would allow employees to receive the maximum contribution even if they don’t contribute to the 401(k).

Besides the 6 percent, employees affected by the pension freeze would get an additional contribution of 1 percent or 2 percent of salary to the defined-contribution plan over the next eight years, depending on how long they have been with the company.

On the elimination of the 401(k) match, the Guild notes in its report on the proposal:

The 401k match will be eliminated, but employees can make contributions to the plan as they do now, on the same tax-deferred basis. (The money that AP was putting into the match is being shifted into the DC plan - no one is “losing” any money.)

This was an important objective for the union, for three reasons. First, there are 400 employees who do not get the full 3% available in the 401k plan. Second, it no longer ties an employee’s personal financial situation to the amount of money paid by the employer. Everyone gets the full 3%, added on top of the existing 3% in the DC, for a total of 6% of pay. Third, it reduces the chance that an employee’s contributions will be “returned” if the 401k plan flunks IRS discrimination tests. This has happened three times in the past.

In the same post, the Guild notes: “The bargaining committee believes this is the best deal possible short of more intense mobilization activities, up to and including a strike.”

We’ll watch to see if the deal is approved.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.