As head of the Chicago News Guild — the union that represents Chicago Sun-Times journalists — Jerry Minkkinen ran a bottom-up union that left big bargaining decisions in the hands of the reporters and editors they would affect.

Minkkinen was fierce at the negotiating table, and when he hammered out the best possible deal, he’d bring it back to union members for a vote.

In 2004, Minkkinen, through last-minute negotiations, was able to avoid a full-blown newsroom strike by winning 3 percent raises for three consecutive years, according to Craig Rosenbaum, who now heads up the Guild and considered Minkkinen a mentor.

“That was really the last good, solid contract we got,” Rosenbaum said. Subsequent contracts, he said, were negotiated under stormier skies as the news industry as a whole struggled to make money online.

Minkkinen, who was with the Guild from 1976 until his retirement in 2008, died Friday at his home in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates. He was 73. He died from complications due to esophageal cancer, which returned after Minkkinen successfully battled it into remission years earlier.

Ted Rilea sat across from Minkkinen at the bargaining table. Rilea, the former vice president of labor relations for the Sun-Times, represented the company’s owners.

“He knew when to fold ’em, as hopefully I did, too, so everyone could walk away with a win,” Rilea said. “He was a real gentleman and a pleasure to work with and against. He represented his people well.”

The pair became friends and shared a meal together a few weeks before Minkkinen died.

“He was smart. He was respectful. A lot of these labor leaders go crazy on you, and some of that is for show for their own members, but he never had to do that,” Rilea said. “When he lost it, it had been a long night, or day and night, and he was trying to get his point across. He yelled when he needed to yell, you paid attention to it, he didn’t waste it. He knew his business. He was an expert.”

Bob Mazzoni, a Sun-Times sports copy editor who is also a co-chair of the Sun-Times bargaining unit, said Minkkinen gave workers a sense they had a say in their destiny.

“I think he definitely made people feel like they could have a say in their working conditions, in their pay, a way to stand up for themselves at work,” he said.

Minkkinen’s honesty and resolve to stick to an agreed upon deal made an impression on Mazzoni. “One of the things he always said was the sign of a good negotiation was that everybody’s unhappy,” he said.

Minkkinen represented the Sun-Times and several other Chicago-area papers that were in the same union.

“His biggest contribution was the fact that he understood union democracy,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, the national union of which the Chicago News Guild is a part.

He represented a new way of operating a newspaper union that differed from the top down, the “we’ll take care of you” sort of leadership that “could be very despotic,” Lunzer said. “That was never the case for the Chicago Guild.”

Minkkinen’s bargaining accomplishments also aided journalists at the Chicago Tribune, even though Minkkinen was never successful at expanding the Guild into the Tribune newsroom, Lunzer said.

“The way they kept the Guild out oftentimes was to mirror the standards of the Guild,” Lunzer said. “I know it had a big effect on the Tribune, especially when it came to showing just cause to terminate an employee.”

Minkkinen grew up in a small town in Minnesota that was home to Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish immigrants.

“He carried a lot of those socialist principles from the countries they originated from,” Lunzer said.

“He loved his job and helping people. He loved golf, football, fishing and his grandkids — all 12 of them,” his daughter, Sandra Minkkinen, said.

In addition to Sandra, Minkkinen is survived by five other children: Roberta Follett, David Minkkinen, Dale Minkkinen, Sheryl Minkkinen and Kim Valentine VanStone. His wife, DeAnne Valentine, died before him.

His first marriage, with Jane Minkkinen, ended in divorce. She has also passed away.

Funeral arrangements are pending.