Exile on Q Street

Bites reported last week that the worker bees at 21st and Q are bracing for some very bad news. But there might be a lot more blood on the floor than we first realized. The Sacramento chapter of The Newspaper Guild sent a detailed and, really, kind of extraordinary letter to its members that made it clear that it’s going to get ugly.

In the letter, guild negotiators quote the Bee’s human resources director Linda Brooks as saying, “I don’t want to lead anyone astray. That number is going to be big.” So big that the union is scrambling by February 20 to give management a list of the names of any employees ready to take buyouts in hopes of staving off a few firings. The company is expected to announce its plan of attack on February 27.

“If there are people that are thinking about going, I’d rather they go now than have people dragged out of the newsroom,” the Bee’s county reporter and union rep Ed Fletcher told Bites.

But it’s not clear at this point that the company is going to offer anything other than pink slips and apologies. Sources contacted by Bites put the number of firings around 50 to 75, with anywhere from 25 to 40 of those coming from the newsroom.

But here’s the spooky thing: The Guild letter mentions the federal Workforce Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which kicks in whenever a company is contemplating mass layoffs. What’s a mass layoff, you ask? Well, if Bites is reading the policy correctly, the WARN Act applies when 500 people, or more than 33 percent of the workforce, are getting axed, or when more than 33 percent of any two departments are being let go. Altogether, the Bee employs 1,100 people. Of those 268 are covered by the Guild. That makes it sound like the layoff numbers might be higher. And while 33 percent cuts sound almost unthinkable, keep this in mind:

The Guild’s letter attributes The McClatchy Co.'s attorney Bob Ford as saying the layoffs would be “on a scale exceeding anything before seen at the Sacramento operation.”

“It’s a very scary time,” says Fletcher. Not just for the Bee employees, but for Sacramento, too. People in town like to beat up on the daily paper, and they should. But without it, we’re screwed.

“There’s no way around it. There are fewer people keeping an eye on what’s going on. Some things are going to happen and we’re just not going to know about them,” Fletcher explains.

“In the beginning, everybody was talking about doing more with less. Now we’re just talking about doing less.”

Reducing the number of pages in the daily paper, layoffs, pay cuts and mandatory furloughs are all said to be on the table. There’s even a persistent rumor that the Bee is considering going to a three-day-a-week publishing schedule, à la the Detroit Free Press. “I don’t know if that’s been seriously investigated, but I doubt it,” says Fletcher.

Speaking of crazy ideas, on Monday Sacramento Guild members sent a letter asking McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt to share in the sacrifice by reducing his salary to just $500,000. In the letter, they note that’s pretty much the same limit President Barack Obama has set for executives whose companies are getting government bailout money. Last year, he cleared $1.1 million in salary and topped $4 million when his bonuses were included.

“It would not be a symbolic move. We don’t want symbolism,” the letter to Pruitt reads. “It’s about dollars and cents at a moment when every dollar counts. A voluntary reduction on your part would save jobs. Simple as that.”