NLRB Issues Complaint Against Santa Barbara Paper

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By: Joe Strupp

The Santa Barbara News-Press engaged in unfair labor practices and improperly sought to discourage union activities, according to a complaint issued by the National Labor Relations Board. The complaint, prompted by a string of employee charges filed with the NLRB in recent months, cites several examples of anti-union actions at the paper, including the suspension of several employees and the firing of a former reporter.

The complaint, issued Wednesday, sets a Feb. 26 hearing date before an administrative law judge who will determine if any of the charges are valid, according to Byron Kohn, acting regional director of the agency’s Los Angeles office.

“There could be an order of back pay, for the dismissed employee to be reinstated, and that the newspaper post a notice to employees that they won’t engage in such conduct in the future,” Kohn said. “They have to file an answer to us admitting or denying the actions in the complaint and then there will be a hearing.”

Specifically, the complaint consolidates six charges by employees that were filed between August and November, many related to the union organizing efforts at the paper. Newsroom staffers voted in September to be represented by a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a vote that the newspaper has challenged with its own NLRB charge, to be heard in January.

Among the newspaper’s actions the NLRB found to be improper in its latest complaint were: the cancellation of the weekly column by Starshine Roshell; the two-day suspension of 11 employees who had engaged in union organizing efforts; threats of discipline against employees if they engaged in union activities; firing of reporter Melinda Burns; and the implementation of a conflict of interest policy that requires prior approval before staffers can write an online blog or accept a speaking engagement.

The complaint states that, because of those actions, the newspaper has been “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights” guaranteed to them under the National Labor Relations Act.

“The NLRB General Counsel’s decision to prosecute the News-Press for its serious labor law violations validates the union’s position that the News-Press is a labor outlaw trafficking in threats and intimidation to transform the newsroom from a haven of journalistic professionalism to a den of arbitrary management fiat,” Ira Gottlieb, a union attorney, said in a statement. “The News-Press has repeatedly and falsely asserted it would abide by the federal labor law rules that have been in place for almost three-quarters of a century, but it has only honored them in the breach.”

News-Press spokeswoman Agnes Huff welcomed the hearing, saying it would give the paper a chance to defend itself and prove the charges and complaint to be false. “That is good news to be able to provide documentation and our side of the story,” she told E&P. “It just shows that there is more that needs to be reviewed.”

The NLRB complaint is the latest action in a long-running labor dispute at the paper dating back to July when a string of newsroom employees — including former editor Jerry Roberts — quit in protest of owner Wendy McCaw’s alleged newsroom meddling. Since then, some 30 employees have quit or been fired, while charges and counter charges of wrongdoing between the owners and the union have been brought forth.

Kohn said this complaint is the first time that any of the charges have reached the level of an NLRB hearing. A related legal matter arose earlier this month when the News-Press filed suit against a reporter for the American Journalism Review, claiming libel in a recent article about the labor battles.

The article, in the December/January issue of AJR, was written by Susan Paterno, director of the journalism program at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. Although AJR was not named in the suit, its editors have said they would stand by Paterno in court and provide legal representation.

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