March 16, 2010

Union seeks dismissal of paper's suit

ELBERT AULL

— By

Staff Writer

The largest union at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit over whether the newspaper's next owners must honor its contract.

Portland Newspaper Guild officials made the request July 8, arguing that the issue should be decided by the National Labor Relations Board instead of a federal judge.

The filing in U.S. District Court in Portland is the latest in the months-long wrangle between the company and The Newspaper Guild -- one that started shortly after the newspaper was put up for sale along with MaineToday.com and two other Seattle Times-owned daily newspapers in Maine.

At issue is whether a new owner of the Portland Press Herald would have to honor the existing contract with the union, which was signed in November and lasts until mid-2011.

The union represents more than 300 employees at the newspaper, including reporters and circulation and advertising employees.

The company argues a new owner is not obligated to honor the guild's contract; union officials disagree.

At the center of the dispute is a clause in the union's collective bargaining agreement that states it ''shall inure to the benefit of and be binding upon the successors and assigns of the publisher.''

The disagreement arose in April, when union leaders sent company officials a letter outlining their interpretation of the clause.

Company officials asked union leaders to take the matter to expedited arbitration -- skipping the preliminary meetings that normally occur when a grievance arises. They declined.

The company filed suit against the union in U.S. District Court in Portland last month, asking a federal judge to either send the issue to arbitration or rule that a new owner is not required to honor the contract.

The newspaper alleged union leaders dragged their feet when executives asked for a speedy resolution of the dispute in e-mails, letters and meetings that occurred before the lawsuit was filed.

Uncertainty over the contract clause has delayed talks with prospective buyers, the company said. The newspapers' owners hope to sell the paper this year and said a lengthy delay could force more layoffs at the Press Herald, which has seen two rounds of cuts since March.

Union lawyers said in their response to the lawsuit that the newspaper has accused them of bargaining in bad faith, which falls under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board and not federal courts.

They also asked the court to strike what they called an ''impertinent and scandalous'' paragraph in the company's complaint. Guild lawyers said the company misrepresented the terms of the contract, giving the incorrect impression that union leaders agreed they would settle disputes faster than the time limits set forth in the agreement.

''The entire complaint is premised on the concept that the (contract) requires the parties to cooperate in obtaining a more 'expeditious resolution of grievances' than is provided for,'' the filing states.

Michael Messerschmidt, the company's attorney, directed questions on Monday to Publisher Charles Cochrane.

Cochrane declined to comment, saying he wouldn't discuss ongoing litigation. The company has not filed a complaint against the union with the labor board, he said.

The union's acting president, Tom Bell, a reporter, also declined to comment. Neither Jonathan Beal, the Portland Newspaper Guild's attorney in Maine, nor Quinn Philbin, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who is also representing the union in the matter, returned phone calls seeking comment.

A hearing date for the Press Herald lawsuit has not yet been scheduled.

Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

eaull@pressherald.com

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