By: Mark Fitzgerald
Real beef or just baloney? St. Joseph News-Press and Teamsters Union Local 460, a case now before the National Labor Relations Board, presents the NLRB with a stark choice: Are newpaper carriers at the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press independent contractors like the Dial-A-Mattress deliverers in the board’s landmark 1998 decision? Or are they employees who can organize with a union like the Roadway long-haul truckers in the board’s other landmark 1998 decision?
In the last 20 years, newspaper companies that argued their carriers were independent contractors prevailed in each of the eight cases that reached the NLRB. Confident that labor law is on their side, fully 95% of newspapers treat their home-delivery carriers as independent contractors, according to Newspaper Association of America (NAA) figures.
But this case is the first newspaper test to reach the NLRB since its 1998 decisions — and it comes following a ruling by a board administrative law judge that the nearly 400 carriers at the 39,772-circulation News-Press are employees under federal labor law.
The union asserts that, like the Roadway truckers, News-Press carriers are employees who cannot negotiate changes to their routes, carry other products during delivery times, or meaningfully increase or risk their profits. The newspaper asserts the carriers are like Dial-A-Mattress independent contractors because, among other things, they do not fill out job applications or take mandatory employee drug tests, they get no paid leave, and they are not supervised by newspaper managers.
“What they’re trying to do is to basically carve out an exception for newspaper carriers,” said Michael C. Murphy, staff counsel with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “Our position is, no. Roadway is the big test that covers all industry.”
“That’s baloney. The newspaper industry isn’t trying to be an exception to anything,” said L. Michael Zinser, the Nashville, Tenn.-based attorney representing the News-Press. The administrative law judge wrongly ignored the Dial-A-Mattress case and the many newspaper precedents, Zinser said.
Although briefs from all parties have been filed, it’s unclear when the NLRB will hear the case because the board, which awaits further appointments, is down to just two sitting members.
The names of those who signed on to the amicus curiae brief supporting the News-Press reflects the keen industry interest in the case: Knight Ridder; Tribune Co.; Advance Publications; E.W. Scripps Co.; McClatchy Co.; Belo; North Jersey Media Group Inc.; NAA; and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Said Teamster attorney Murphy: “Everybody and his uncle came out for this one.”