Reporters and editors picketing The Philadelphia Inquirer today carried along a life-size cardboard cutout of the pope flashing a thumb's up sign.
"Help Us Pope Francis," the picket signs said. Other placards carried by members of the Newspaper Guild proclaimed, "Six Years No Raises," and "No More Givebacks."
"Our members can't afford to give back another penny," Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild shouted through a bullhorn. "We're not asking for charity, we're asking what's right for our members."
With the Guild contract set to expire at midnight Saturday, union members have authorized a vote that could result in the first newspaper strike in this town in 30 years. As a couple hundred union members marched in front of the newspaper offices on Market Street, the wealthy philanthropist who was the target of the demonstration was nowhere in sight.
But Lenfest has made it clear that his largesse does not extend to the 150 reporters and editors who work at his two newspapers and website.
"PMN is not a charity but rather it is a business, and as such it must be sustainable," Lenfest declared in an email sent to all employees this week.
In response, officers of the Newspaper Guild of Philadelphia sent out a bulletin that said, "For us, this company has been a charity. We have lost our pension. We haven't had a raise in six years. In fact, we have given back raises. We have paid more for health care because the company has not increased its contribution in 15 years."
"We want Mr. Lenfest to understand one thing: It's not a charity, it's an investment," Guild officers wrote in an email promoting today's demonstration, which drew the support of the AFL-CIO and Communication Workers of America.
Amy Buckman, a PMN spokesperson, said she believed that Lenfest was in the country but wasn't sure. She works for Lenfest, she explained; he doesn't tell her his whereabouts.
In his email to employees, Lenfest says PMN is in trouble.
"I have invested in the Company without any expectation of financial rewards but because of my belief that these institutions are worth preserving," Lenfest wrote. "However, like the rest of the news industry, PMN faces serious economic challenges, and we all have to work together to do what is needed to ensure the long-term viability of the newspapers and Philly.com."
The circulation of the Sunday Inquirer is down 25,000 over last year, Guild officials say. Meanwhile, revenues are in the tank.
PMN and the Guild are at loggerheads over seniority and health benefits.
In the event of more layoffs, which are expected, the company wants the right to exempt 60 recent hires from seniority rules. With a list of only 150 reporters and editors left at the two newspapers and website, that's too much to give up, Guild officers say.
Regarding health benefits, the Guild says each of its 400 beneficiaries faces an average annual increase of $4,500 to make up for a $1.8 million shortfall in the company's health care program. That's too much to pay for workers who haven't had a raise in six years, Guild officers say.
Veteran journalists out on the picket line said that after all the givebacks of recent years, including two weeks of annual unpaid furloughs, they are making less than they earned more than a decade ago.
The surviving Guild members have been through court battles and one ownership change after another. Morale is said to be at a new low after management last month overruled the unanimous decision of the Inquirer editorial board to endorse Jim Kenney for mayor. Instead, the Inquirer endorsed Anthony Hardy Willliams, who had received past donations from Lenfest.
Buckman says that in the event of a strike, PMN plans to keep publishing a newspaper as well as keeping philly.com in operation.
To further ramp up tensions, Keith Black, PMN's vice-president of human resources, sent out a memorandum to all employees today that explains how to cross the picket line in the event of a strike so the employees can keep their jobs and continue getting paid.
As far as fearing for safety in the event of crossing a picket line, Black told employees, "We will make arrangements for security to protect everyone's safety. At your manager's discretion, you may be permitted to work from home or from another location."
In response, Guild officials sent out a bulletin that described Black's supposedly helpful memorandum as a "disingenuous blueprint on how to become a scab that has been used by union busting employers for decades."
Contracts talks have been going nowhere. After 35 fruitless negotiating sessions in 7 months, Guild members voted 287 to 26 to authorize union leaders to prepare for a strike on Saturday, when the current contract expires.
There's one last bargaining session scheduled for tomorrow with a federal mediator.
"The hope of the company is that it will be a fruitful session," Buckman said.