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CanWest newspapers seeking worker concessions: union

Unions at CanWest Global Communications Corp. newspapers say they are being asked to enter concession talks with the company, which faces a major restructuring effort as it tries to deal with a crushing $3.9-billion debt load.

The CWA/SCA Canada union said Friday the Winnipeg-based newspaper publisher is asking for wage cuts of up to 5 per cent, which could save it $20-million a year and help it avoid a bankruptcy protection filing.

The union represents workers at five of CanWest's major papers.

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It received the concession requests in a letter delivered Friday from Dennis Skulsky, president and chief executive officer of CanWest's newspaper operations.

The union said it believes similar letters have been sent to other union leaders at CanWest newspapers.

In the letter, the union said, Mr. Skulsky writes that a 5 per cent wage cut for all CanWest newspaper employees would result in $20-million in savings in a year.

'It could well be the difference between a creditor protection process or not," the union quotes the letter as saying.

'We are urging CanWest to provide complete financial information and if it does, we would be open to further discussions," said Arnold Amber, director of CWA/SCA Canada.

Mr. Amber disputed "the suggestion in the letter that somehow our union is unwilling to engage in talks."

"We have met several times this year, and we've underlined the need to have access to real financial data in order to have meaningful talks," he said in a release.

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"The focus of any talks now should be how to ensure that the newspapers we work for succeed in their cities. We know just from the numbers that have been made public that five per cent wage concessions are not going to go far in solving CanWest's overall debt, so we need to take a broader view about the problem at hand."

CanWest is working to restructure $3.9-billion in debt and has said it wants to have a deal in place by mid-July. The media company received several extensions from bondholders while it worked on selling assets and renegotiating its debt agreements.

It recently received about $175-million in fresh financing from U.S. buyout funds and other investors, but it is believed the company will have to appoint new management in any restructuring.

CanWest owns the National Post, based in Toronto, as well as a string of big-city dailies from Vancouver to Montreal. The company also operates the Global TV network and has other broadcasting assets in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

The company ran up a huge debt load when it bought the former Southam newspaper chain and other assets in 2000 for $3.2-billion from Conrad Black's Hollinger group.

Canwest also took on additional debt when it acquired Alliance-Atlantis Communications more than two years ago to boost its stable of specialty cable TV channels.

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