A federal magistrate judge Monday rejected the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s attempt to overturn an arbitration award for its journalists union, handing the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh a significant victory in a long-running dispute with its employer over healthcare costs.
The Post-Gazette’s millionaire owners, twin brothers John Robinson and Allan Block, and their Tennessee lawyers have refused to abide by the December award upholding a grievance filed by the Guild. The Blocks’ actions have forced their own employees, who have not had an across-the-board raise in 14 years, to pay more than $70,000 out of their own pockets for healthcare since 2017 — expenditures that they never should have incurred.
In her 34-page report, Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania concluded that the Post-Gazette’s complaint to vacate the arbitration award should be dismissed, the award should be enforced and the Guild’s counterclaim to enforce the order — including reimbursing members of the unionized newsroom — should be granted.
Lenihan’s recommendation comes three days after the executive council of the Guild’s parent union, NewsGuild-CWA, announced that it had unanimously endorsed Guild members’ request to strike in light of bad-faith and surface bargaining by the Post-Gazette, a declaration of a bargaining impasse and unlawful imposition of economic concessions and other onerous conditions on July 27.
“Overturning arbitration awards is very rare, and most practitioners recognize that principle. Unfortunately the Post-Gazette has more money than brains and chooses to spend its millions on trying to destroy a system that has worked for decades simply to try and beat down their hard-working journalists who have suffered for 14 years without a wage increase and who are now subject to an inferior health care plan during the worst pandemic in 100 years,” Joseph J. Pass, the Guild’s attorney said. “Unconscionable!”
“The Blocks’ attempt to destroy their employees and families is reprehensible and will not be tolerated,” Pass continued. “In reality, they use the justice system to thwart justice by appealing and appealing, leaving their employees and families with health care bills that they can no longer afford.”
Arbitrator Jay Nadelbach found on Dec. 30, 2019 that the Post-Gazette had violated its contract with the union by unilaterally refusing to pay health insurance premium increases during negotiations for a new contract, leading to dramatic hikes in Guild members’ deductibles.
The Post-Gazette refused to make the additional premium payments in 2018, 2019 and 2020, leading to deductibles rocketing to $2,000 for single coverage and $4,000 for family coverage, up from $850 and $1,700, the levels that existed when the Guild’s contract expired March 31, 2017.
Nadelbach ordered the Post-Gazette to not only pay the amount needed to maintain the healthcare benefits spelled out in the contract, but to make Guild members whole “for any out-of-pocket monies paid as a result of the Employer’s failure to maintain the contractual level of benefits.”
On Feb. 14, the Post-Gazette appealed Nadelbach’s award, which he declared was “final and binding,” to federal court.
“There is no reason why Arbitrator Nadelbach’s December 30, 2019 Award — on a matter of contract interpretation within his core competence, submitted for expedited determination by the parties — should not now be enforced,” Lenihan wrote.
Lenihan determined that the Post-Gazette did not file its appeal within the 30-day statute of limitations. But even if it had, she wrote, the company’s arguments would have failed on the merits.
The Post-Gazette has 14 days to file objections.
Previously, the Guild and five other unions at the Post-Gazette battled against the company’s refusal to pay healthcare premium increases during contract negotiations by filing Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
The board’s regional office in Pittsburgh issued a complaint against the Post-Gazette. When the newspaper objected, a hearing was held, and an administrative law judge upheld the decision. The Post-Gazette still was not satisfied and appealed to the NLRB in Washington, D.C. On Aug. 22, 2019, a three-member panel of the board, all appointees of President Donald J. Trump, found in favor of the Post-Gazette and dismissed the complaint.
“Once again, our position regarding healthcare has been upheld, “ said Guild President Michael A. Fuoco, a PG reporter for 36 years. “If only the Blocks and their carpetbagging attorney believed in the rule of law. They would rather spitefully appeal than doing what is right and just. Their actions are ethically and morally bankrupt.”
Despite Nadelbach’s award, the Post-Gazette on Sept. 1 unilaterally forced Guild members onto a different, far more costly health plan as part of its imposition of working conditions after declaring an impasse in bargaining.
The Guild rejects the notion that any impasse exists and continues to seek a diplomatic and amicable resolution to its labor dispute with the Post-Gazette in order to avert a strike.
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh represents 122 journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Michael A. Fuoco
Newspaper Guild President
Jonathan D. Silver
Post-Gazette Unit Chairman
Joseph J. Pass, Jubelirer, Pass & Intrier
Attorney for the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh