Organizer of Newspaper Guild Unit Laid Off

By: Joe Strupp

A chief organizer of the new Newspaper Guild unit at the Bay Area Newspaper Group-East Bay outside San Francisco is being laid off, and she claims management is ousting her in part for her union activities.

Sara Steffens, a nine-year reporter at the Contra Costa Times of Walnut Creek, was just voted unit chair of the New BANG-EB guild unit on Wednesday. The unit represents nine BANG-EB papers that are part of MediaNews Group, including the Times and the Oakland Tribune.

Two weeks ago, however, Steffens and 28 other guild employees found out they would be laid off. Most are expected to depart today. The layoffs come almost a month after BANG-EB employees voted in the guild, 104 to 92.

“There are several active [union] organizers on the [layoff] list and several who were very outspoken,” says Steffens, 36, who was co-chair of the guild organizing effort. “We haven’t been satisfied with the company’s rationale about some of their choices.”

John Armstrong, BANG-EB president and publisher, declined comment and referred calls to BANG-EB Editor Kevin Keane, who issued a statement to E&P:

“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.”

When BANG-EB announced the layoffs, it also said an undisclosed number of non-union staffers would be let go. The reductions will bring the 226-person news staff down to 197.

“They told us they intended to do them without regard to merit or job performance, simply eliminate positions,” Steffens said. “That is when I started to worry about myself a little bit.”

The first notice of layoffs came on June 27, a day after the National Labor Relations Board 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.

Steffens said union leaders met with management on June 30 and she was informed on July 2 that she would be laid off. “I think it was important to them to show that they could make an effort to sit down and bargain,” she says about the meeting. “But our influence is limited in these mattes.”

She said that, without a contract, the Guild unit has little power to intervene in the layoff plan, which will pay one week’s salary for each year of service up to 12 weeks, along with three months of health benefits. “I think we could have had a lot more protection,” she said.

Married to San Francisco Chronicle photographer Mike Kepka and the mother of a two-year-old, Steffens said she is considering formal action against the paper, but would not elaborate: “The guild is definitely interested in continuing to pursue this.”

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