Providence's Alternative Source!

NLRB showdown looms after the laughs


As last-minute preparations continue for the Providence Newspaper Guild's annual Follies, there's no shortage of real-life inspiration for the pointed send-up of the year in news. Some wags point directly to the pages of the Providence Journal, where a gaffe led to the free publication February 15 -- a day late -- of a full page of previously paid for Valentine's Day greetings. The paper tried to cover its tracks with the heading, "Love springs eternal! The day after Valentine's Day, our readers' hearts are aflutter with these messages to their loved ones." For in-house critics, though, who see the miscue as typical of slipping standards under the Belo Corporation, the attempted catch-up was more lame than game.

As far as the Follies, we almost fell out of our chair last year when the Guild inexplicably passed on the opportunity to poke fun at the :CueCat, the dubious and much-hyped computer peripheral that emerged as an unabashed loser after Belo, which was joined by a bevy of other overeager corporate backers, invested $37.5 million in the device's parent company. The oversight is due to be rectified when the latest Follies, which began in 1973 as a way to help heal the wounds from a bitter strike at the Journal in 1972, is held this Friday, February 22, at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts.

A spirit of satire and tart humor fuels the can't-miss event for political and media types, which is routinely attended by more than 1200 people. Still, even the Follies, a fundraiser for scholarships for children of Guild members and those sponsored by Guild members, has been impacted by the bitterness of the ongoing dispute between Journal management and the union. This will be the third year, says Guild administrator Tim Schick, in which Journal publisher Howard G. Sutton has ordered newspaper managers not to attend the sold-out event.

Management and the Guild will have the chance for a real showdown in short order. A repeatedly delayed National Labor Relations Board hearing is due to begin at Pawtucket City Hall on Monday, February 25, and the hearing -- which will focus on allegations of 47 violations of federal labor law by Journal management -- could serve as a referendum on Belo's stewardship of the Journal. The Dallas-based corporation bought the newspaper in 1997, and Guild members have since come to believe that both their union and the Journal's tradition of journalistic quality are under attack. Management has described the criticism as unwarranted.

Guild members have been working without a contract since February 2000. The alleged labor law violations include charges that the newspaper has failed to bargain in good faith; tried to intimidate Guild members because of union activities; and made unilateral changes in working conditions without bargaining with the union. Mark T. Ryan, executive vice president and general manager of the Journal Company, didn't return a call seeking comment.

Schick, who expects to provide a week's worth of testimony, says the NLRB hearing is expected to last two weeks, and it's most likely that administrative law judge William Kocol will make a decision several months later. For his part, Schick believes the hearing will offer conclusive support for the kind of complaints that Guild members have been expressing for years.

One intriguing question is the degree to which the Journal, which has shown a growing trend to self-censorship under Belo, will cover the hearing. Joel P. Rawon, the paper's executive editor, didn't return a call seeking comment. But medical reporter Felice Freyer, an executive member of the Guild, will take time off to provide daily coverage of the hearing for the Guild's special Web site, "I would expect a prominent newspaper that gives critical coverage of major corporations in the Rhode Island area to do the same for itself," Schick says. "[But] their track record has not been too good in shining a spotlight on themselves. I will be pleasantly surprised if they do decide to cover it."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: February 22 - 28, 2002