IndyStar’s refusal to share in new health costs isn’t good for anyone

An apple a day?

How ’bout a Band-Aid?

Not really a comprehensive plan for health care. But it seems that’s the ultimate destination for The Indianapolis Star’s employee health insurance.

Make a Difference Day, sponsored by The Indianapolis Star to promote children's literacy, Indianapolis, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015.

Gannett’s ideal health insurance.

After allowing years of cost increases and coverage erosion, the Star’s management is searching for a new low this year on employee health coverage: It wants employees to absorb 100% of the cost increases. For workers with families — some of whom haven’t seen a cost-of-living pay raises in 4 years — this amounts to $1,000 a year in new costs.

That’s quite a pay cut.

It’s odd, too. The Star’s parent company, Gannett, is covering 100% of the cost increases at a paper in Wisconsin that has an identical health insurance arrangement as does The Star. The Indianapolis NewsGuild, which represents newsroom staff and custodial workers at the printing plant, is only asking that The Star split the burden of the cost increases.

The Guild has done what it can to soften the blow. Last year, we went out and found a new health plan that offered better coverage at the same or better costs as Gannett’s corporate plan. We’d like to renew it. But we also expect our employer to share in the cost increases due to inflation. But The Star has refused to split the burden, to share the costs.

This comes at a time when Star management has praised its workers for adapting to the digital-first world of news. It comes as The Star has done some things to try and make the office more lively and fun. What hasn’t followed is much in the way of pay and benefit improvements to employees. In fact, when it comes to health insurance, their efforts continue to get worse.

The NewsGuild cares about great journalism and it cares about the people who produce it. We urge The Star to help its workers be healthier. We urge The Star to share the costs.

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Why is The Star more stingy than Sheboygan?


As we work to persuade Gannett to cover our 2016 health insurance cost increases, we learned something very interesting late last week: Gannett is already planning to do that for another of the newspapers in its chain.

We refer to the Gannett paper in Sheboygan, WI, which like us signed on last year with the United Furniture Workers as its insurance provider. Sheboygan’s management agreed to pay between 5 and 6 percent more in 2016, enough to cover the entirety of the health insurance cost increases at Sheboygan. That’s about the same price increase we face with our plan.

Yet for some reason, Star management insists that our people bear the full burden of the 2016 health insurance cost increases.  It’s a troubling move that for workers with families could amount to a pay cut of nearly $1,000 next year. Most other workers would see increases of $200 to $300 next year.

A year ago, The Guild went out and found a better insurance than Gannett’s, one that kept costs the same or lower while increasing benefits. In some cases, our members saved thousands of dollars. It was a win for The Star, too. The Guild’s insurance made The Star’s benefits package more attractive to potential new hires.

Now, it seems as if The Star is trying to take advantage of our savings by shifting more costs to employees rather than sharing the load next year. It’s not that way in Sheboygan. It doesn’t have to be that way here.

Are The Star’s employees and their families less valuable than Sheboygan’s? We don’t think so. Let us know what you think.

And stay tuned to this situation. We may ask you to take actions to help persuade The Star to take a lesson from Sheboygan, of all places.

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Star wants to shift more healthcare burden to employees

Star management has told the Guild it wants our members to bear the full burden of any health insurance cost increases for 2016, a troubling move that would amount to a pay cut for insured workers.

The Star wants to keep its contributions to our health insurance at 2015 levels, said Gannett HR business partner Julie Sawyer. The move comes even though health care costs are growing nationally by 7 to 10 percent.

The Star announced its intentions to freeze its contribution level after the Guild brought the company a rate quote from the United Furniture Workers that forecasts cost increases for 2016 at 4 to 6 percent. The benefits under the coverage — co-pays, deductibles and drug plans — would remain at 2015 levels.

Most people insured through the Guild’s plan would see their share of the insurance burden increase from $18 to $82 per month — increases ranging from 13 to 27 percent.

Guild leaders are deeply concerned about the potential cut into take-home pay. In response, we have proposed to split the burden of the cost increases with the company. Short of that compromise, Guild leaders are considering what collective action to call for from our members. The Guild’s window for action is short, however, as contractual deadlines and open enrollment windows approach.

The Star has not yet announced information about its rates and coverage levels for Gannett’s United Healthcare plan. Sawyer said she expects the 2016 insurance benefits package for the company plan to remain unchanged from 2015. She said she expects to hear information about the rate structure by Oct. 20.

Gannett’s annual ritual of shifting more health insurance costs to workers — while reducing benefits — led the Guild in 2014 to seek insurance through a third-party administrator. Essentially, the Guild negotiated with Gannett for the right to take their health insurance contributions and buy a better plan.

The result was coverage through the United Furniture Workers Insurance Fund, a nonprofit organization that serves union members. The new insurance offered lower deductibles, better drug plans and co-payments — all at similar and in some cases lower costs than Gannett’s plan. The feedback from members has been strongly positive about the move, with many members urging us to renew with the UFW for 2016.

Guild leaders are asking members for their feedback and urging them to stay tuned to a situation that could require quick action.

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New Health Insurance

After more than a year of effort and several months of negotiations, the Guild has successfully negotiated a deal giving us the right to go with a health insurance alternative to Gannett’s UnitedHealthcare. We did this because the monthly Insurance costs were lower and, in the case of one of the plans, the benefits are better.

This coverage applies to everyone covered by the Guild’s contract, including workers who are still receiving severance or COBRA coverage from previous Gannett layoffs. The change also meant that Gannett’s UnitedHealthcare was no longer an option.

The new insurance provider is the United Furniture Workers Insurance & Pension Funds, a non-profit organization that serves Communications Workers of America union members and their families across the United States. The Guild is part of the CWA.

The Guild finalized the deal with The Indianapolis Star on Dec. 8. A few days later, The Star informed us that former employees still getting COBRA benefits would follow us to the new coverage. The timing left us little breathing room to get everyone signed up on the new insurance. We completed the enrollment of our working staff in waves, the last of which ended Dec. 19.

For those severed workers outside the office, it is important that you look over the information mailed to you from the United Furniture Workers and return the completed enrollment and claim forms to the UFW as soon as possible. There is also a Payroll Deduction Form we need you to sign and return to the Guild as soon as possible. For severed workers who have been on the Star’s insurance, the rates are the same as for working staffers. For those covered by COBRA, the rates are slightly higher.

This enrollment has been a big effort turned around in a short time, but we trust that the extra work will be worth the better coverage and lower costs. If you have questions about the benefits, we urge you to call the UFW at 1-800-800-8860. If you have questions for the Guild, email us at

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A tentative agreement on a new 2-year contract

We essentially fought the company to a draw.

The Guild fended off the company’s most odious contract proposals on severance pay but had to accept a new 2-year deal that brings no guarantees of wage increases. In the view of your bargaining team, it leaves much to be desired. But it also is the best deal we’re likely to get.

The agreement Wednesday came just a few hours after a midday meeting of Guild members where passions were high and – with no agreement in sight – we were talking street protests. 

From the sentiments shared at that meeting, the Guild’s bargaining team found a pathway to a deal – we would drop our pay raise request in order to kill the company’s proposal to do away with severance pay for workers fired after being deemed poor performers.

This was important because so many of you said that proposal could easily be used by the company to make it easier and cheaper to fire folks who have fallen out of favor. It was also increasingly clear the company would not budge on wages, raising the prospects of an ugly stalemate and potentially an impasse.

Several aspects of this deal amount to making the best of a difficult situation. Some examples:

*The company will begin its job cuts by seeking people willing to accept voluntary layoffs. Those accepted will get normal severance payments but also, because of this deal, health insurance coverage during the severance.

*Severance and health care coverage will also apply to employees not chosen for jobs in the new organizational chart.

*Downtown building service workers whose jobs will disappear because of the move to Circle Center Mall will get an additional four weeks of severance pay.

The Guild also fended off the company’s proposal to use temp workers on an unlimited basis. Previously, the contract limited temps to three months, six if the Guild agreed to an extension. As a compromise, we agreed to allow temps to be employed with the company for one year.

There were some other language revisions on advanced notification before layoffs, on pay scale minimums and on job titles that will reflect the new reorganization.

We know that the victories here were mainly defensive. But in such a challenging environment for newspapers your show of support over these many months – and especially in these final days – helped us emerge in a better position than we might have. We’re also quite convinced that, compared with other Gannett papers without Guilds, the workers whose jobs are about to disappear will fare much better.

These next few weeks – as the reorganization takes hold – promise to be difficult, even painful. But the lesson from these negotiations is that we are much stronger when we hang together.

Most striking in these final days was how selfless our members were. Those whose tenure here appears to be ending were still concerned about the need for wage increases for workers who will remain. Those who expect to be here when the dust settles were concerned about preserving the severance for those more vulnerable. It was an uncommon level of altruism; we were humbled by it.

Not to be overlooked are the countless hours the Guild bargaining team put into this endeavor. Jill Disis, Michael Campbell and Bob Scheer took part at different points. These past three days of marathon sessions involved Jill Phillips, Tony Cook, DuJuan Carpenter, Michael Pointer, John Russell and TNG sector representative Jay Schmitz. They represented you passionately and aggressively. They sacrificed long hours from their jobs and their families. It was a privilege to work with them.

Finally, we know some aspects of mobilizing sometimes feel silly. How many Fridays can one wear red? How many helium-filled balloons does it take to get a decent contract? But we know for a fact that, in the end, your willingness to show your colors made it clear to management that we were united, and the Guild wasn’t to be taken lightly.

We hope that as many of you as possible will, along with your families, join us this Sunday for our outing at the Indians game at Victory Field. After such a heavy week, let’s enjoy a day of fun at the ballpark. See Vic Ryckaert for tickets.

Bobby King

Guild president


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Picking up the pieces — again

Obviously, what happened Monday — with the Star announcing yet another round of job reductions — has left us all with a wide range of emotions spanning from shock to fear to anger. After so much experience with these kinds of bleak days — six rounds of reductions in six years — you might think it wouldn’t be so, but it is.
Of course this round of cuts was dressed up in the form of a reorganization into what the Star, and Gannett newsrooms in many cities, are calling the “newsroom of the future.” (Gannett used similar phrasing in 2006). The most glaring thing about the newsroom of the future is that it involves 15% fewer journalists than the newsroom of the present. For those whose jobs are likely lost this time, we can only remind you that you’ve done your jobs well, it’s just unfortunate that Gannett’s goals for newsrooms are ever-changing. That your job is no longer their priority reflects more about the corporation than anything it says about you.
The strange aspect of this is that there’s not a clean break. Some of us will scour the job menu for a position we might fit into. And some of us will be left standing when this game of musical chairs stops. Several no doubt are considering the voluntary layoffs. Others who may have jobs after Sept. 5 may decide you’ve had enough of the annual summer roulette. 
Most immediately, your Guild bargaining team members are regrouping today and to try and finish negotiating a new contract. The company has a proposal on the table that moves off some of their harsher stances on severance, but leaves others. We give the credit for their move to all of you who made your voices heard on this. But the biggest remaining hurdle is pay. Several of us will still be here after Sept. 5. More than two-thirds of the newsroom saw no pay raise this past year, despite getting good job reviews, despite all the efforts you made to learn new skills and new software, and despite the fact inflation has kept eating away at your earnings. Given all you’ve had to learn and do and the efforts you made, we find this appalling. 
The Guild is contemplating some form of group action, possibly as early as Wednesday. Please stay tuned. If you have thoughts on anything about the reorganization, about the job cuts, about negotiations, about group actions, please share them.
We’re here to serve you. 
Your Guild leadership

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A new home for The Star could have its advantages

The Star will relocate in a few weeks to a new home Downtown. The spot offers benefits beyond a great menu of nearby restaurants, especially to the paper’s workers — who are looking for better wages, affordable health care and a fair new contract. If the Star’s management continues to try and dictate terms for that contract, instead of negotiating, the new location should provide a highly visible spot for the Guild to take action. 

The Star will relocate to this Downtown spot in September. The new location has many great features.

The Star will relocate to this prime Downtown real estate in September.

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