Oahu Publications has pulled its buyout offer for union employees of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, a move that likely means the newsroom’s planned downsizing will be achieved solely through involuntary job cuts.

The company, which also owns MidWeek and a number of other Hawaii publications, canceled its “voluntary separation incentive program” Thursday, a day before the deadline for eligible employees to take the deal.

The move came less than 12 hours after the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents the Star-Advertiser’s editorial employees, expressed concerns over “the way the buyout was being handled,” according to Sjarif Goldstein, a sports editor who serves as the union’s unit chair.

Dennis Francis, the company’s president and publisher, said the union made “a long list of demands” to sweeten the deal — beyond the guarantee of one week’s wages for each year of employment, as well as medical insurance for three months.

“I was extremely disappointed,” Francis said. “We frankly thought we were offering a good deal for those that might be considering leaving anyway.”

But Goldstein said the only demand that the union made was to “bargain the issue.”

“The letter we sent included the term ‘demand to bargain’ because that is the legal term used to indicate to the employer that we feel they are legally obligated to negotiate an issue with us,” Goldstein said.

Star Advertiser staff Guild Aloha Shirts. 16 aug 2016
Union employees of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser had a number of concerns over the buyout offer from Oahu Publications, which owns the newspaper and a number of other Hawaii publications. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to Goldstein, the union had a number of concerns over the terms of the buyout.

For one thing, the company didn’t make copies of the terms of the buyout available to attorneys for union members, making it difficult for them to receive sufficient legal advice before taking the deal.

The union was also troubled by the vagueness in the clauses that govern “confidentiality” and “no disparagement.”

And the union wanted the company to clarify whether those who take the buyout would be eligible for unemployment benefits.

“We’ll let them decide what they want to do. There’s nothing more we can do at this point.” — Sjarif Goldstein, newsroom employees union

“We requested that if members did not qualify that the company pay the difference,” Goldstein said. “The company had the right to decline that request if it was not comfortable with it or simply felt it could not answer the question.”

But, in the end, Francis opted to rescind the buyout offer, concluding that taking steps to bargain with the union “would not allow us to adhere to our intended timetable.”

Francis said the company’s initial plan was to downsize the Star-Advertiser’s newsroom — by a yet-to-be-determined number — through a combination of buyouts and job cuts.

The planned downsizing is part of a companywide cost-cutting initiative to offset losses in print-advertising revenue.

So far, the company has eliminated 20 vacant positions and let go of eight nonunion employees who worked for several of the company’s publications, including MidWeek.

With the buyout offer off the table, Francis said the company will likely have to resort to involuntary job cuts to trim the Star-Advertiser’s staff.

Goldstein said the union has no choice but to wait for the company’s next move.

“We’ll let them decide what they want to do. There’s nothing more we can do at this point,” Goldstein said.

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