JR Block, the publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, made a rare public appearance on Wednesday.
He talked about past Pittsburgh newspapers and related labor disputes, among other things, at a Rotary meeting at the Omni William Penn hotel. Outside the hotel, union employees who work for the newspaper owned by the Block family were posted around the entire building. They were handing out leaflets about the paper’s ongoing dispute with workers.
“This is the beginning of a much more visible presence that we’re going to have, letting the public know of what we’re facing,” said Michael Fuoco, reporter at the Post-Gazette and president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh.
“It’s time for [the Blocks] to recognize what we provide to this community,” said Fuoco.
He said the dispute affects hundreds of union employees at the paper.
"There's a responsibility in owning a newspaper. Part of that is to hire quality journalists. They've done that. But they need to pay them," Fuoco said. "We were making more in 2006 than we are today, and a few things have gone up in price since then."
It’s been a complicated, long fight between the two parties. The company and the newspaper’s unions have been unable to agree on a new contract for 21 months.
Journalists have been working under the expired contract while a new one is negotiated. Under the old contract, the newspaper agreed to pay premium increases for employee health insurance of up to 5 percent per year. But now that the contract is expired, the company says it won’t follow those terms.
Employees submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, where staff sided with the unions. The company appealed the decision in November.
In talking to reporters after his speech on Wednesday, Block publicly commented on the dispute for the first time since the appeal.
“We’re hoping to resolve all the issues in a satisfactory manner,” he said. “But I’m not involved in that. I perforce keep that at a distance.”
Reporters asked Block about the state of the paper, and what many see as a conservative shift on its editorial page.
Block said the paper’s news section has been critical of President Donald Trump.
“We follow the national template, which comes out of the New York- and Washington-based media. It is, if anything in my opinion, somewhat shamefully biased against the President.”
Last summer Block drew fire after the paper stopped running cartoonist Rob Rogers’ drawings. Rogers frequently criticized Trump, and was replaced with a more conservative cartoonist. Block said on Wednesday that the paper received a lot of complaints about Rogers' work.