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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Labor agenda

Whatever happened at The Oregonian?
Publisher Fred A. Stickel must help it recover its footing, morale and moxie

What will they dream up next to cripple The Oregonian? At first glance, an effort to re-unionize the monopoly statewide daily newspaper looks like yet another blow to a proud Oregon institution, one that is already reeling from circulation losses. It doesn't help that we began predicting it months ago in our series about PERS.

Some other blows have been external. Sadly, this new one appears self-inflicted. The drive to unionize The Oregonian could have been headed off with more astute management. Some employees report they've been poorly treated, and their complaints have been ignored. Even so, the unionizing effort hands ammunition to external critics, eager to see the The Oregonian's independence compromised.

The $1 billion Oregonian is published in Portand. It is Oregon's only statewide daily newspaper, and the state's dominant news organ. It campaigns relentlessly for the priorities of its out-of-state owners, led by Si Newhouse, providing invaluable but unreported, slickly-coordinated political cover in candidate and ballot measure campaigns, and in deals to redevelop neighborhoods and expand downtown, most recently into the South Waterfront area.

From the Pill Hill Aerial Rapid Transit System (PHARTS) to Metro expansion to light rail, the The Oregonian is responsible for cheerleading signature boondoggles that define Portland in the eyes of the world, erode the City's property tax base by over-reliance on Urban Renewal subsidies, and keep Portland among the most jobless cities of its size in the nation. All in the name of boosting the region's prosperity.

Once an ethic of excellence and creativity percolated throughout the newspaper and inspired employees' loyalty. They were told they were the best of the best, and they were treated accordingly. In exchange, they willingly shouldered some higher risks, including a long, violent strike to bust the union and secure the monopoly - although that was in the 1960's.

Unlike most public policy workers, The Oregonian employees don't have contracts but instead serve "at will" and can be fired without cause. The Oregoniam's employees don't even have the same grievance procedures other typical employees in the competitive private sector enjoy.

They were willing to trade such protections, however, for the prestige of working for this Establishment bastion, with its reputation for a nimble and shrewd ad sales force. Now it appears some employees are no longer willing to make the trade. In the past few years, they say working conditions have deteriorated to the point that unionizing is their best hope.

It appears that salaries and benefits may have fallen behind, too, something The Oregonian's managers should have corrected long ago, considering the profits taken out-of-state to New York by the billionaire Newhouses. How ironic. The mouthpiece that has cheer-led countless public-private partnerships, and prided itself on business acumen, appears to have neglected its most valued partners - its own employees.

Editor Sandra Mims Rowe had an open-door policy and also walked around, inviting employees at all levels to tell her what was going on. But now she's at OHSU with most of the other editors, being treated for Multiple-Standard Syndrome.

Sadly, some The Oregonian's employees are now prepared to sacrifice the distinctiveness of the place they work to win the union bargaining power and labor protections enjoyed by their counterparts in state and local governments. Can the The Oregonian's publisher Fred A. Stickel head this off by apologizing and pledging improvement? We're not sure, but he should try.

Stickel has only led the paper since 1950, when out-of-state newspaper chain magnate Sam Newhouse brought him here from New Jersey after purchasing The Oregonian from the local owners. He deserves more time to address its problems. Employees should give Stickel and the Newhouses the benefit of the doubt. Unionizing the The Oregonian might not be fatal, but it won't enhance the paper's effectiveness. It's likely to make the paper slower, blander and more bureaucratic, more like every other unionized workplace. And that's exactly what the private sector was never supposed to be.

To the extent that The Oregonian turns into a clone of every other government bureau, Portland and Oregon in the long run turn into clones of other cities and states with unionized newspapers. We don't know if it's too late to change employees' minds and avert the union drive. But whatever happens now, it's up to Stickel to restore the agency's morale - and moxie.

Or else, Oregonians will be scratching their heads some day and asking: Whatever happened to that daily newspaper we once had, the one that was so distinctive, and did so much for our city and state. Remember? The Oregonian.

The Oregonian, OPINION By THE EDITORS, Feb. 19

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