Judge Upholds Union Election at Embattled Santa Barbara Paper

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An administrative law judge upheld a union election at the Santa Barbara News-Press, rejecting accusations made by newspaper management that unfair organizing tactics were used.

Newsroom employees voted 33-6 in September to join the union, but the paper and employees have been feuding since then over the legitimacy of the vote. In his decision dated March 8, Judge William Schmidt said Ampersand Publishing LLC, which owns the News-Press, failed to prove the Teamsters union tried to coerce employees to organize.

The ruling means the union could start negotiating with the newspaper.

“I don’t have any doubt that if the News-Press wants to bargain in good faith we can hammer out an agreement,” said Ira Gottlieb, an attorney representing newsroom employees in the ongoing labor dispute.

A spokeswoman for News-Press owner Wendy McCaw could not immediately comment Monday on the judge’s decision. The newspaper has 14 days to appeal the ruling.

The turmoil at the newspaper has been brewing since July when several top editors quit, claiming McCaw meddled in the newsroom. Since then, nearly 40 staffers have either quit or been fired from the paper, according to savethenewspress.com, a Web site that keeps tabs on developments at the newspaper.

McCaw has countered that the former employees had injected their personal views into news coverage.

Last month, six journalists were fired for placing a sign over a freeway overpass urging people to cancel their subscription to the newspaper. An unfair labor practice charge was filed with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the six employees.

An attorney for the newspaper said the fired journalists were trying to injure and disparage the paper.

In January, Schmidt held a two-day hearing on the charges leveled by the newspaper. Among them, News-Press management claimed the union provided false and misleading propaganda to employees and newsroom supervisors engaged in “pro-union” behavior.

Schmidt also didn’t believe newsroom employees did anything wrong on July 13 when they presented a protest letter to editorial page editor Travis Armstrong, who at the time was serving as interim publisher. Staffers also made a similar attempt to give a letter to McCaw on Aug. 24.

Newspaper management said about 25 employees stomped through the newsroom during the August incident and stopped “all news functions.”

“I find the August 24 employee action mirrors that of July 13 for its peaceful tone and purpose,” Schmidt wrote. “The record does not support the claims made in the employer’s brief that the employees stampeded from office to office attempting to intimidate others.”

The labor relations board in December filed a complaint against the News-Press, saying it had fired a journalist and suspended others because it wanted to discourage workers from engaging in union activities.

A judge will review the remaining unfair labor practices claims leveled by both sides at a hearing that has yet to be scheduled.

The 41,000-circulation daily has said it employs about 50 people in its newsroom among a 206-person work force.

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