Guild members may take the Strib's money and run

The abrupt sale of the Minneapolis Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners the day after Christmas left many of the paper's employees wondering how soon they'd be shown the door.
But a little-known clause in the paper's contract with union journalists suggests that its employees might have good reason to look for the door--possibly in droves.

Article VIII of the Star Tribune's contract with the Minnesota Newspaper Guild and Typograhical Union ensures all employees represented by the union the right to exercise a buyout should the paper be sold to an outside buyer. Within five days of a sale, employees must express their interest in a buyout; in return, they'll receive two weeks of pay for every year worked, with a 40 week maximum. The purchase by Avista is said to be completed in "early 2007." While the Guild represents employees at the St. Paul Pioneer Press as well, the stipulation is specific to Star Tribune's Guild members.

Pat Doyle, Guild officer and veteran Star Tribune capitol reporter, says the benefit of this stipulation is that it allows employees "to trigger their own buyouts" rather than force them to accept terms established by management.

The provision in the Guild's contract was invoked in 1998 when the Cowles family sold the paper to the McClatchy group for $1.2 billion (more than double Avista's $530 million bid), but through a special agreement, only 12 employees received "buyouts." The agreement only applied only to the Cowles' sale of the paper to McClatchy; the Guild did not waive any rights to enforce this provision in the future.

"The Guild's position on this issue is even firmer and stronger than it was in '98," Doyle said. "It's in the contract. It's pretty clear-cut, and it's never been removed or shot down in any way."

But Eric Black, a Star Tribune writer for nearly 30 years, is more cautious. He says the buyout option is "enough money to get your attention," but adds a qualifier: "if it turns out to be an offer that's on the table, I'm sure quite a few people will take advantage of it."

"It's in the contract, and it's clear to me what's intended," he said. "Being cautious about such things and having been through the deal in '98, I don't foreclose the possibility that either the old owners or the new owners will come up with some kind of interpretation that would either try to get out of that offer or limit it in some way."

While Doyle wouldn't offer an estimate on how many staffers might be interested in buyouts, he said that after a Guild representative informed members about it on Tuesday, "It seemed to be of great interest to a lot of people."

A staff list circulating at the paper shows that at least 76 employees have 25 years or more experience, including some of its best-known writers: food columnist Al Sicherman (who celebrates his 39th anniversary in 2007), film critic Jeff Strickler (36 years), political reporter Conrad Defiebre (34 years), Jon Bream (32 years), columnist Lori Sturdevant (31 years), metro columnist Doug Grow (28 years), theater critic Graydon Royce (27 years), and National Press Award-winning cartoonist Steve Sack (26 years).

The Star Tribune's management representative was unavailable for comment.

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