If news breaks out and there are no reporters and photographers to cover it, did the news really happen? We may find out the answer to this Zen-like question on Tuesday morning in the South Bay. That’s because all union editorial employees at the San Jose Mercury News have been ordered to not come to work on December 5 between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Merc management told the reporters and photogs earlier this week that they should remain at home, waiting by their phones for a call that will tell them whether they’ve lost their jobs.
Merc managers plan to lay off forty editorial staffers on Monday night and Tuesday morning, along with another 61 workers in the newspaper’s other departments. Union employees plan to wear all-black outfits on Monday and Tuesday or black armbands. Management has remained tight-lipped about who will be getting the phone calls, and the secrecy has put the 446 employees who received layoff-warning notices on edge. “It’s the largest layoff in Mercury News history – that I’m aware of,” said Luther Jackson, executive director of the San Jose Newspaper Guild.
Once the laid-off employees receive the bad news, they will be given a time on Saturday and Sunday December 9 and 10 to come into the office and collect their belongings. But they won’t have access to their computers. Merc managers plan to immediately turn off the laid-off employees’ computers and change their passwords. This plan has prompted dozens of staffers in the past few days to begin downloading or printing out their phone numbers, source lists, and key work they don’t want to lose. “People are e-mailing stuff to their private e-mail accounts or downloading stuff like crazy,” said one Merc source.
Merc executive editor Susan Goldberg told employees that she decided to call people at home instead of doing it at the office to avoid publicly embarrassing the laid-off employees. But her plan has some people wondering whether her real motive is to avoid possible major disruptions at the paper when staffers learn who gets the ax.
Plans for the layoffs steamed ahead on Thursday after the union refused to capitulate to MediaNews‘ demands. The company that owns the Oakland Tribune and several other East Bay dailies purchased the Merc in August, along with the Contra Costa Times , and then demanded that the Merc union employees agree to wide-ranging cuts. One of the major sticking points in the bargaining talks centered on MediaNews’ demand that it be allowed to assign work now done by Merc reporters and photographers to lower-paid staffers at the company’s other papers. MediaNews told the union that the concessions could save 27 of the 69 total union positions that are to be eliminated on Tuesday. But union negotiators refused to concede, because MediaNews would not offer any guarantees that the 27 jobs would not be cut later. “That means 27 jobs saved today could be eliminated tomorrow,” union negotiators wrote in a memo to members late Thursday.
The union on Thursday also announced plans to challenge the legality of the layoffs in court. Union lawyers argue that MediaNews violated the law because it did not give the laid off employees sixty days’ notice as required by state and federal law. Instead, MediaNews notified all union employees that they “may” be laid off. In a November 29 letter to MediaNews, Robert Jesinger, an attorney for the guild, argued that the law requires notice to all employees “affected” by the layoffs. Jesinger said the law is designed to give laid off employees “transition time” to find new employment. He accused MediaNews of “needlessly terrorizing” more than 350 employees and their families who will not be losing their jobs. The union wants the company to postpone the layoffs.
The laid-off employees’ official last day is to be December 19, but they will not be allowed to come to work after the 5th. They will be paid for staying home the two weeks in between.
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