Alex Hulanicki began his newspaper career as a 16-year-old sports stringer at the Monterey, California, County Herald. And after decades of rising through the newsroom ranks with a series of investigative reporting awards, the 44-year-old business reporter was happily coasting toward finishing out his career at the same paper.
Then one Sunday he was told he had three hours to clean out his desk. He had become one of "the disappeared." Hulanicki and 21 fellow Herald employees lost their jobs during Knight-Ridder's August takeover of the paper.
The tense management switch — in which all 231 Herald employees lost their jobs and had to reapply for them — has thrown the seaside city into the center of the owner-union newspaper wars.
Monterey has replaced Detroit as the new front line in what Newspaper Guild members are calling Knight-Ridder's effort to break newspaper unions. Staffers at the chain's unionized papers in Philadelphia, Detroit, San Jose, Long Beach, California, and other cities held a day of solidarity in August to publicize their concern over what happened in Monterey.
"People were and are scared," says Darren Carroll of The Newspaper Guild/ CWA, who is working with the San Jose Newspaper Guild, which represents the Monterey workers. "This is a very laid-back place... Now it feels sort of paramilitary."
Knight-Ridder brought a private security force into Monterey to watch over the transition when Guild members threatened to strike after hearing that every employee from the managing editor on down had to take IQ, grammar and spelling tests as part of the reapplication process.
"This is not exactly the way I wanted to start my new job," incoming Publisher Patricia Keil admitted in a full page ad placed in the Monterey County Herald by Knight-Ridder in the days before the takeover.
The management switch began benignly enough when Knight-Ridder announced it was swapping its 34,000-circulation Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, for E.W. Scripps Co.'s Monterey paper and its San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune. The acquisition of the Herald (circulation 35,000) and Telegram-Tribune (circulation 34,000) brought Knight-Ridder's Northern California papers up to seven — enhancing a coveted "cluster" effect that eases production costs and allows attractive package deals to advertisers.
But Knight-Ridder executives saw the union contracts at the Herald as "too restrictive" for a mid-size paper, says corporate spokesman Polk Laffoon. The most recent Guild deal limited the use of stringers and temps, kept management from shifting staff between departments and overpaid employees in clerk positions, Laffoon says.
So Knight-Ridder employed a little used but legal tactic of refusing to accept the contracts. Under federal labor law, Scripps then had to fire all the workers so Knight-Ridder could reset wages and rehire the employees. During the rehiring process Knight-Ridder was free to reconfigure the newsroom and eliminate several high paid positions.
Reporters, copy editors, photographers and a receptionist were among the 22 staffers told no slot could be found for their skills at the paper. Meanwhile, the rehired workers were without a contract.
But any mention of union-busting in Monterey in the wake of the messy Detroit strike makes Knight-Ridder executives cringe. "This was not an attempt to bust the unions," insists Laffoon. "We're going to bargain with them."
San Jose Newspaper Guild Executive Officer Luther Jackson isn't buying it. He points to San Luis Obispo, where workers at the non-union shop at the other paper involved in the Scripps swap were not forced into a reapplication process when Knight-Ridder took over. Guild members in Monterey say, in essence, they are being punished for having a union contract.
"This is why I worry about the newspaper industry," says Jackson. "That's the tactic."
The nation's second-largest newspaper publisher also had to deflect criticism and anti-union accusations this summer after it initially refused to consider employee stock ownership proposals from unionized workers at dailies the company is trying to sell in Gary, Indiana, and Long Beach. The company has since reversed its position and will open the books at both papers to allow the employees to make an offer, Laffoon says.
Critics say it is too little too late. After the bitter Detroit strike, any company move that can be perceived as anti-union will be criticized by Guild members.
But Knight-Ridder executives say it is unfair to label the company "anti-union" based on incidents in four cities when nearly a third of its 36 dailies in the United States are unionized.
"We work successfully with unions at a lot of our newspapers," says Laffoon. "Knight-Ridder's 24,000 employees by and large seem to be pleased working here."
Back in Monterey, Hulanicki and the rest of "the disappeared" are doing their best to move on from the still-volatile situation at their old paper. Hulanicki is keeping a hand in the fight, even though he is teaching English at Monterey Peninsula College.
"The struggle is for those who are on the inside," Hulanicki says. Knight-Ridder "tried to break the will of the people."