AP staffers in thirty-nine bureaus across the country picketed outside their bureau offices early this week, pressuring the news wire to back off a plan to freeze pensions for some 1,250 workers. The freeze is the final sticking point in protracted contract negotiations that began in October between the AP’s HR representatives and lawyers and representatives from the News Media Guild. The AP won’t budge—like other outlets, it say times are bad and sacrifices need to be made. Its employees say they’ve sacrificed enough.
On Tuesday, I stopped by the rally outside the AP’s New York City bureau, which is housed in a grimy concrete swoosh of a building on the far western edge of midtown Manhattan. The turnout was smaller than expected: a similar rally in March drew about a hundred supporters; Tuesday’s peaked at about thirty. It was probably the cold and the rain—a D.C. rally was moved to Wednesday because of torrential downpours—but the ralliers who did show up were in good voice. Sporting large red badges that said “We Keep AP Working,” as well as red caps and jackets—it’s the Guild’s official color— they stood across the road from the bureau building and chanted, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! AP’s proposal’s got to go!”
At one point the group of AP workers, retirees, and supporters issued something like an angry birdcall: “Cheap, cheap, cheap.”
Daniel Derella, a photo editor with the AP for almost fourteen years, was one of the louder chirpers I noticed. Holding a sign that read “You Can’t Spell Cheap Without AP,” he told me the proposed pension freeze would see his expected retirement money halved. “We all make sacrifices for the company when you have to,” said Derella, who lives with his wife and son in Queens. “You forgo pay rises for your future and in the long run you expect to have a little something extra to help you out.” He seemed to sum up the mood of those at the rally when he added, “Everybody understands it’s a tough economic time, we just want a fair and equitable contract.”
Getting there is proving a problem. Negotiations between the News Media Guild and representatives of the news wire began last October; more than a month before the then-current contract was due to expire, on November 30, for the 1,250 AP staffers—among them reporters, editors, graphic artists, photographers, videographers, researchers, technicians, and workers in the mailroom. Six months later—and after a Guild campaign that has included petitions and letters to CEO Tom Curley—the expired contract is still in effect and movement toward a replacement has hit an impasse over the pension issue.
There has been some progress. Originally, the AP proposed a raise of 1.5 percent within in the first year of the new contract, with another $500 bonus not tied to a percentage. Now the AP is proposing a 1.5 percent raise that would go into effect upon an agreement with the Guild, and a further 1.5 percent raise, effective September 1, 2011. Staffers would receive another 1.5 percent increase in September of the following year.
On the one hand, that’s significant: AP employees have not had a wage increase in two years. On the other hand, the increases will likely fall short of the rate of inflation, which is expected to rise further as the economy strengthens.
In another compromise, the AP has also agreed not to raise monthly health plan contributions or to change the design of the plan, which had been part of its original proposal. In a postscript to an e-mail that AP’s human resources VP Jessica Bruce sent to staff last week—leaked to Romenesko but published there without the postscript—AP claimed the proposal, removed as “a concession to the union,” would have saved the organization $1.1 million annually.
Now the talks hinge on pensions, and the AP is refusing to budge on plans for a “pension freeze.” Staffers hired by AP since 2006 work under a defined contribution plan into which AP puts 3 percent of an employee’s salary annually. Management wants to transition employees hired before 2006 onto the same plan, moving them from a defined benefit plan, where the AP assumes most of the risk on investments, to a defined contribution plan, where employees assume the bulk of the risk.
In the leaked memo, AP said it would “ease the transition from one plan to the other” by making “additional contributions of 1 or 2 percent of salary per year—depending on the employee’s length of service—for seven years.” Adds the memo: “That’s an increase of two years from the transition period that had been proposed originally.”