Bay Area Guild Unit Files NLRB Charge Over Layoffs

By: Joe Strupp

Less than a week after 29 members of the new Newspaper Guild unit at the Bay Area Newspaper Group-East Bay outside San Francisco were laid off, the union has filed an unfair labor charge claiming they were dismissed for union activities.

The Northern California Media Workers Guild, which represents about 230 workers at the nine-paper BANG-EB, filed the unfair labor practice charge Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board, the union said in a statement. The charge is in protest of “last Friday’s retaliatory firings of organizers and other anti-union actions against the newly formed ? unit of the Guild.”

Among those who lost their jobs in the layoff was unit chair and co-organizer of the unit, Sara Steffens, a reporter at the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek.

“I think they wanted me out of the newsroom,” Steffens said in a statement. “They wanted to keep me from continuing to engage co-workers as we push for our first contract and they hoped this would send a message to scare people away from further union activity. But they made a big mistake — so far it’s only made our newsroom understand why it’s important to have a contract to protect us.”

John Armstrong, BANG-EB publisher and president, was unavailable for comment because he is out this week, but Marshall Anstandig, Senior Vice President-General Counsel for the chain, said in a statement: “We will aggressively defend it. We did nothing illegal, inappropriate or wrong. We have already met with the Guild and their bargaining team four times. Hardly an effort to scare or frighten anyone.”

BANG-EB Executive Editor Kevin Keane could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday. Late last week, when word of Steffens’ layoff was first reported by E&P, Keane said in a statement: “These layoffs were driven by the economy and nothing else. Instead of relying on job performance, we eliminated positions that we felt we could no longer afford in this economic environment or in those areas where we felt the work could be absorbed by others. Sara?s beat was poverty and social issues. ??

“We also took a hard look at areas where there was overlap or job redundancies. And we felt it was important to preserve full-time positions over part-time where we could.??

“We didn?t want to get into a situation where employees were ‘bumped’ on or off the list based on seniority or other factors, so any job that was eliminated impacted the person holding that job.”

If the NLRB charge succeeds in reaching the hearing stage, guild representative Carl Hall said in a statement that the union plans to present evidence showing a “clear pattern of anti-union discrimination” against the bargaining unit. “At least 20 of the 29 who were fired had been visibly supportive of the Guild organizing,” the statement added. “No active opponents of the unionization effort were let go.”

“The union’s charges include three key violations by the company: selecting employees for layoff in retaliation for their protected union activities, discontinuing its merit pay system without bargaining with the union, and soliciting employees to waive their rights under the National Labor Relations Act in order to be eligible for the severance package,” the guild statement said.

The first notice of layoffs came on June 27, a day after the NLRB formally certified the guild unit. The new unit is the first guild effort at the chain since MediaNews in August withdrew recognition of the former Alameda Newspaper Guild, which had represented some 130 staffers at the former four-paper ANG, including the Oakland Tribune.

The union recognition change followed MediaNews’ consolidation of ANG’s editorial functions with its neighboring five-paper Contra Costa Newspapers, led by the Contra Costa Times.

The consolidation of editorial operations from the two groups came one year after MediaNews purchased the Contra Costa papers from McClatchy as part of its takeover of 31 daily and community papers in the area.

Company officials said at the time that the move was proper because the consolidated editorial unit included fewer than 50% guild members. Since the ANG unit, which had been under a guild contract since 1998, had only 130 staffers and the Contra Costa staff, which was union-free, included about 170, the guild unit could be removed because it did not represent a majority of the combined workers.

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