As Newspaper Guild members voted overwhelmingly last night to authorize what would be the first newspaper strike in this town in 30 years, people were asking about "Gerry."
"The real question is, is Gerry aware of what's going on," asked Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia. Ross said he was amazed that "such a great philanthropist as Gerry would allow things to get to this point."
"Gerry" is H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the 85-year-old former billionaire philanthropist who overpaid when he and the late Lewis Katz bought the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com on May 27, 2014 for the inflated price of $88 million. [When Katz died in a plane crash, Lenfest was left holding the bag as sole owner]. After 35 fruitless negotiating sessions over 7 months, Guild members voted 287 to 26 to authorize union leaders to prepare for a strike on June 27th, when the current contract expires.
If there's a newspaper strike, "It's part of his legacy," Howard Gensler, president of the Newspaper Guild said about Lenfest. "If they [the newspapers] fail on his his watch that certainly doesn't jive with all the great things that he's done."
Amy Buckman, the former TV reporter who's the public relations manager for Philadelphia Media Network [PMN], the owner of the two newspapers and philly.com, insists that Geriatric Gerry is awake and alert, and up to speed.
"I can assure you that the company negotiators keep the Owner/Publisher updated on the ongoing talks," Buckman said in an email. She also reiterated in a prepared statement that if the Guild goes on strike, Philadelphia Media Network will continue to publish a newspaper and keep the website going, presumably with replacement workers.
Stu Bykofsky, veteran Daily News columnist, is one of the old-timers who remembers the last newspaper strike of 1985 that lasted 46 days.
"We don't want to strike, but if they force us into it we will have no choice, and we'll be ready," Bykofsky said as he cast his vote.
"I've never seen the membership so mobilized," Ross said. That's because they're desperate.
"We've lost half our membership in the past 15 years," a Newspaper Guild statement said. "We've given up sick days, daily overtime and salary. When will the company understand the harsh economic realities facing its employees?"
The Guild and management are fighting over seniority and health benefits. The Guild says the company wants concessions on seniority and also is trying to extract an additional $60 to $150 a week from each worker's paychecks to make up for a $2.8 million shortfall in the company's health care program.
As employees filed in to cast their votes, the talk was if they have to go to the mattresses, it was time to get tough with Gerry.
Union members have taken notice of a recent Facebook post by Lenfest's son Chase. On the occasion of his father's 85th birthday, Chase Lenfest gushed about his father's generosity.
"My father H.F. [Gerry] Lenfest will be 85 years old this Friday and has done more for this city than possibly anyone else in its history," Chase Lenfest wrote. "He grew up with no money and . . . made billions of dollars selling Suburban cable to Comcast in 2000 and is giving every penny he has away before he dies."
"He is or until recently was chairman of the board of the Art Museum, the Curtis School of Music, The American Revolutionary Center to name a few, in addition to giving thousands of scholarships to needy Philadelphia students," Chase Lenfest wrote.
"He grew up working extremely hard on a farm and was captain of a destroyer in the Navy," Chase Lenfest wrote about his father. "He is all about hard work and has never worked less than 60-70 hours a week. He still lives in the 3-bedroom 2,000 square foot home I grew up in. My parents have never had a maid or a landscaper or any help. All he cares about is doing EVERYTHING he can while he has time to help as many people as possible."
"He is a great guy," Gensler conceded. But now, "Gerry needs to do the right thing for his employees," the union president said. They "should not have to go broke paying for health care."
|Can a parasite bill a host?|
Lenfest, however, in one of his first brilliant moves as the new owner, reinstated Tierney as a consultant.
Buckman did not respond to a request for comment regarding Tierney's bills. In her defense, maybe she was busy rounding up scabs.
And while in bankruptcy in 2009, Tierney defaulted on a $50 million payment owed the Guild pension fund. A fund that Guild officials say as a consequence will run dry in eleven years.
Tierney doesn't just confine his talents to the Inquirer. He's also chairman of the Poynter Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Florida nonprofit institute for journalism. According to the Poynter Foundation's 990 tax filings, Tierney hasn't raised a dime for the foundation the past two years.
At least he's remarkably consistent.
Beginning on Sunday, local Newspaper Guild leaders will be in Detroit, meeting with the leaders of the Communication Workers of America and the International Newspaper Guild, to seek funds for a strike.
In response to the union strike vote, spokesperson Buckman said that while PMN "recognizes and respects the right of the Guild members to authorize" a strike vote, that decision "does not change PMN's commitment to operate both digitally and in print in the event of a strike, so that we can continue to serve our readers, subscribers, advertisers and employees, and so we can best protect the long-term future of our company."
Management has warned the union that in the event of a strike their pay and health benefits would end immediately.
So would Gerry's reputation as a philanthropist.