What a difference five years makes.

In November 2000, members of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild—which represents about 800 reporters, photographers, artists, ad salespeople, and circulation workers at the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer—walked off their jobs, shouting confrontational slogans and demanding their employers treat them better. This year, as many of those same employees prepare to renegotiate the contract they hammered out during that bitter 49-day strike, the tone among union members is markedly less confrontatinal.

"I think people are hoping that we can get this worked out as cooperatively as possible," said guild president Yoko Kuramoto-Eidsmoe, a desk editor at the Times.

What's changed since the Seattle newspaper strike of 2000–2001? A lot. For starters, the media landscape has shifted dramatically due to the rise of the internet, and this shift has not favored traditional newspapers. In a recent survey of Seattle guild members, one respondent pessimistically described the newspaper business as "the whale-oil industry of its time"— a mode of production that has outlived its usefulness and is destined to die.

There is much to support this view, with circulation at daily newspapers declining across the country, along with investors' confidence in the newspaper business model, all of which make this a difficult time for employees to be demanding raises.

"I don't know if there will be a lot of demanding," says Steve Miletich, guild vice president and a reporter at the Times. "The whole landscape has changed since last time."

On top of that, the already tense rivalry between the two papers has grown even more intense since the strike (which I participated in as a Times employee). The Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I, is currently suing the Times over its effort to end a joint-operating agreement that allows the papers to share printing, ad sales, and distribution operations. The agreement keeps both daily papers alive in a media market that otherwise could support only one. In addition, the guild-backed Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town has been agitating, in court and in public, against the Times' efforts to make itself the only paper in town.

There's long been debate within the newspaper guild over whether it makes sense for employees at two intensely competitive dailies to be bargaining together in the same union, and that debate is resurfacing as the May 16 start of contract negotiations approaches.

"I don't think our interests were ever parallel," says one Times employee who requested anonymity. "It's definitely much worse now. These two newspapers are really in open warfare."

Because the two papers' printing and distribution operations are run by the Times, there are only about 150 guild employees at the P-I, nearly all of them reporters. At the Times, meanwhile, there are about 650 guild members. This means the P-I bargaining unit needs the Times more than the Times bargaining unit needs the P-I, and this is what feeds the controversy.

Mike Lewis, a P-I reporter and the guild's secretary, is among those who believe that the two units should bargain together. "The more union members the better, and the fewer the worse," he says.

Not everyone shares that opinion, however. The issue came to a head late last year, and again early this year, when guild members held votes on whether or not the guild should continue to support the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town in its campaign against the Times. With many guild members now feeling that they have to choose between their allegiance to the union and their desire not to hurt their employer at an economically vulnerable moment for the industry, a number of Times employees who were active in the strike five years ago became the most active lobbyists for the failed votes against the committee.

Guild administrator Liz Brown says that, intra-union grumbling aside, the P-I and Times members will bargain together as always this year, and that it is likely the union will ask for a wage increase and a shorter, two-year contract (the current contract expires July 21). "We're not interested in another six-year contract," she says. "The industry is undergoing huge changes, and so is the economy, so a long contract is not to the benefit of the members."

Those "huge changes" are already rattling employees, Brown says. In the member surveys, which she's currently tabulating, one of the most common requests from P-I members, tellingly, is that union negotiators focus on improved severance packages.