This just in: A federal judge has ruled that our Post-Dispatch retiree’s medical benefits might be considered a vested right and compelled the P-D to proceed into arbitration over a grievance we filed well over a year ago! After a small fortune in legal fees (thank you Barbara Camens, God bless you!) on an issue other unions have litigated – and lost – we have prevailed.
Readers should be cautioned that this is still not over. What now remains is the arbitration process, itself. And, while that goes forward, I would think it’s a pretty safe bet that The Post-Dispatch will appeal the judge’s ruling to the 8th circuit court of appeals (it’s union-busting, $500 an-hour law firm of King and Ballow isn’t about to roll over; they want more billable hours!!).
So expect an appeal. And when that occurs, we will argue that the arbitration process should not be held up. There is a good legal argument for this and we expect to prevail here as well.
It’s important to remember just how all this began: In October of 2008, the company sent a letter to Guild members who had retired under the blue contract (the blue contract ran from December 12, 1994 – June 5, 2004) informing them that, effective 1-01-09, they would be required to pay 30% of their medical premiums – in spite of the fact that they had retired under an agreement which guaranteed their medical benefits would be paid by the company for their “lifetime.”
This union immediately filed a grievance and, when it was denied by the company, attempted to appeal it to arbitration. That’s when this whole legal mess began. The company soon informed us that, under law, one cannot arbitrate an expired contract, and they were therefore refusing to participate in the process of selecting an arbitrator and scheduling a hearing.
Normally their high priced attorneys might be right. Their argument about not arbitrating expired agreements has some merit. They also argued that retirees are no longer part of our bargaining unit and that’s also true – they aren’t in the bargaining unit anymore. But in all of this there’s a legal principle that deals with how rights are “vested” and then carried forward. Our members right to lifetime medical coverage vested the day they went out the door and the promise the company made to them was carried forward from that point. That was our position and we filed a lawsuit in federal court to back that up and compel the company into arbitration.
Almost immediately after filing our lawsuit, King and Ballow filed a motion to dismiss and the first round of this legal battle royale ensued. Meetings were held, mass phone calls were placed, mailings went out, people were deposed, briefs got filed, legal arguments were laid out and, when the smoke cleared, our attorney – the reknown Barbara Camens – prevailed over a entire team of Nashville’s union busters, as our judge refused to dismiss the case and we moved forward to the next step in the process (and, for those of you keeping score at home, that made it Guild -one, Bad Guys- zip).
During all this there were other assaults our retirees had to withstand and their Guild stood with them every step of the way. We wound up in several arbitration hearings, sometimes facing as many as three (three!) King and Ballow attorneys. For instance, the company decided to eliminate our yellow contract (June 6, 2004 – March 27, 2010) retirees low-deductible plan and replace it with a more expensive plan. We grieved that and, because the yellow contract had not yet expired, the issue was arbitrated. We recently won that case and many of our people received sizable checks reimbursing them for the higher costs they incurred during that time (that victory made it 2-zip, Guild). The company also decided to replace the medical coverage of those retiring under the yellow contract with a finite and arbitrary amount of money in a “medical retirement savings account” Assigning a specific dollar amount to retirees clearly meant that their coverage could run out at some point and we felt compelled to ask, “Just what exactly is it about the word “lifetime” that you don’t understand?” So we filed another grievance. That issue went to arbitration as well and was heard by an arbitrator who announced afterward that he would withhold his ruling until our lawsuit was decided. So today’s ruling sets that case in motion again.
And, if all this wasn’t enough fun, one year after this started, in the Fall of 2009, the company announced they were going now going to charge our blue (1994 – 2004) contract retirees’ 100% (up from 30%) of their medical premium costs. So once more we filed a grievance, had it denied, filed for arbitration, had it denied and then filed a lawsuit in federal court (can you see a pattern emerging?)
It stands to reason that the lawsuit we just won (3- zip, good guys, btw), which dealt with forcing our retirees to pay 30%, will have an impact on our second lawsuit, which deals with forcing them to pay 100%. And it seems reasonable to assume that the only thing that has prevented the company from going after our yellow contract (2004 – March, 2010) retirees – now that that contract has expired – is the fact that no one knew how all this was going to come out. Perhaps, then, those yellow contract retirees can breathe a bit easier tonight. But perhaps not, who can say? I can’t speak for the company or for Lee Enterprises. I can, however, speak for this local and will do so now:
This isn’t over, we know that. But it’s important to savor a win like this; they don’t come along all that often. I’ve said from the outset that we’ll get there and we’re going to keep fighting until we win this thing for once and for all.
Let me also state that this victory was not achieved on the cheap; legal triumphs rarely are. If you’re planning on going into federal court up against one of the more accomplished union-busting law firms in the United States you’d better get yourself a freakin’ pit bull. Well, we got us a pit bull and that kind of aggressive advocacy costs real money. But it took that kind of “damn the torpedoes” thinking to achieve this amazing victory. So we’ve won (at least this round) and I need to acknowledge the unflinching stand of the Executive Committee of this local. When all this started we discussed what it would require and, from President Jeff Gordon on down, there was not one person who shied away from this fight. Their attitude was: “These people spent their whole life paying dues to this union. And now, this union has their back.” It’s not often you see an organization willing to spend money on an issue that affects people who no longer contribute to its coffers and I can honestly say that it was one of the proudest moments of my life. So to President Jeff Gordon, Vice President David Carson, Vice President Joe Kenny (of the St. Louis Review), Recording-Secretary Laurie Waterhouse, Treasurer Jim Gallagher, Jobs with Justice Unit Chair Aaron Burnett, KSDK-TV Unit Chair Mike Daugherty, Labor-Tribune Unit Chair Lauren Marshall, Post-Dispatch Unit Chair Deni Fleming, St. Louis Review Unit Chair Jean Anthony, Unicom Labor Chair Andy Duttlinger and Post-Dispatch delegates Barry Gilbert, Greg Jonsson and John Mues: Thank you. You epitomize all that’s right about our labor movement and you guys rock.
So high fives and good night. I will spend now a good portion time trying to get the Judge’s full ruling attached to this article. Please be patient.