This article also appears in the Toledo Free Press.
(Toledo, OH) The threat of a strike by unionized employees of The Blade looms ever larger, as the paper simultaneously may be entertaining serious sale offers.
Block Communications Inc. (BCI) is in contract talks with most of its Toledo newspaper unions, and the contracts expire March 21.
Unlike past contracts, the company is not recognizing the joint council of eight unions. Instead, BCI is addressing operational issues with the unions separately, and is attempting to negotiate separate contracts with separate dates and terms.
The Blade placed employment ads in its own classified section on March 10 for mailer workers, offering wages of $24 per hour plus benefits.
Larry Vellequette, the mobilization coordinator for the Newspaper Guild, said he does not believe The Blade's ads are legitimate.
"What The Blade is doing is very cynical, and designed for one purpose — to send a message to the unions," he said. "They are placing all these ads to try and get a photo of thousands of people standing in the rain looking for jobs that will never exist."
Vellequette said The Blade's offer of $24 for replacement workers is an "insult" to its employees.
"The mailer employees are making between $10.80 and $15 an hour and they would love to be making that $24 an hour," he said. "The Blade told the guild they have no intention of locking anyone out, so we see this as nothing more than a photo op."
Luann Sharp, assisting managing editor at The Blade, said the decision to take applications and conduct interviews was a "preparedness move."
"Talks are ongoing with seven of our eight unions," she said, adding that one union — the pressmen — has a contract through 2009. "We have negotiating sessions scheduled all this week to try and reach agreements with the other unions."
Vellequette said the newspaper unions are pleased with the encouragement they have received from the community.
"We had about 300 people there at a rally on Sunday," he said, adding there are about 650 employees affected by contract talks. "The UAW's Lloyd Mahaffey said we have that union's unqualified support, and Teamsters President Bill Lichtenwald also showed up to offer support."
BCI has been rumored to be entertaining offers for the sale of The Blade. One corporation purported to have an interest in acquiring the newspaper is MediaNews Group, a communications conglomerate based in Denver that owns 40 daily newspapers in nine states.
A source inside The Blade indicated MNG's CEO Dean Singleton and BCI Chairman Allan Block have been in talks regarding the sale of the paper. Calls to both men were not returned by press time.
Earlier this month, Block told Toledo Free Press, "They have a contract that isn't supported by business and economic realities in Toledo. The business reality is old media transitioning to something new and being impacted by new media. The economic reality is what is happening in Toledo."
The Blade's Sharp was "not aware" of any such talks, and declined to speculate on a possible sale of the paper.
Sale rumors did not come as a surprise to the Newspaper Guild's Vellequette.
"The new Blade general manager Joe Zerbey used to work for Singleton and MediaNews," he said. "People should be very concerned about such a sale, since it will move a lot of money out of Toledo to Denver."
BCI also relocated many of its administrative staffers to offices on Monroe Street in Sylvania. Vellequette said the move is "troubling."
"The fact that they are moving out of Toledo is of grave concern to us," he said. "It looks like the Blocks are prepared to abandon the city of Toledo, despite the fact that they just spent thousands of dollars renovating BCI offices in The Blade building."