Resignations at Santa Barbara Paper Still Reverberating 5 Months Later

By: Joe Strupp

Although five months have passed since a string of top editors resigned at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press in a protest that eventually led to 29 newsroom employees leaving the paper, those still on the job contend they remain in a fight for worker rights.

And they appear to be stepping up their efforts with a protest today at the paper, plans for a weekend fundraiser to help ex-employees with financial problems, and a petition urging the rehiring of one fired reporter that boasts nearly 700 signers.

Dozens of employees were set to protest today — the anniversary of the July 6 resignations that included former editor Jerry Roberts — in a lunchtime demonstration at the paper that demands management engage in bargaining with the newly voted-in union.

“We are more than determined to succeed here,” said Dawn Hobbs, one of several veteran staffers who were involved in unionizing the newsroom after the resignations began. “It is of the utmost importance that we get a contract that has a clause that returns integrity to the newsroom.”

Although the rank and file voted on Sept. 27 to be represented by a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, management has refused to bargain with the union, claiming the vote was coerced. The News-Press has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the vote was not properly administered.

“The basis for the charge is that the employees were coerced and did not have an opportunity to vote without undue influence,” said Agnes Huff, a News-Press spokeswoman. “The regulatory process is still unfolding and the union has not been recognized.”

The labor battle began when five newsroom staffers, most of them editors, walked off the job in July claiming that owner Wendy McCaw had meddled in newsroom decisions. Since their departure, at least two dozen more staffers have quit, while a handful of others have been fired. Huff said the paper has hired about 20 people to replace them and said the paper continues to focus on “its core business of providing the news.”

Among those fired was Melinda Burns, a longtime reporter who clams she was let go for her union organizing activities. An NLRB complaint has been filed on her behalf claiming wrongful termination. An employee-backed Web site, www.savethenewspress.com, launched a petition drive protesting Burns’ ouster, which appears to have nearly 700 signatures.

Another group of supporters, comprised of current and former Santa Barbara residents, has created a fund for those who have left the paper. The Journalists Loan Fund, which claims to have raised $16,000 since August, has already provided $3,500 to three former staffers, according to Sue Broidy, a former Santa Barbara resident and treasurer of the group. She declined to identify the recipients, but said the group hopes to help others soon.

The loan fund’s first fundraiser, a showing of “All The President’s Men,” is set for Saturday, Broidy said. For a $50 admission, guests will be able to view the film, nosh on wine and hors d’oeuvres, and hear several speakers that include former ABC News reporter Sander Vanocur and Reagan Biographer Lou Cannon.

“If we raise $5,000, I’ll be happy,” said Broidy. “We expect more people to apply [for loans] so we will be glad to have a cushion.”

Huff declined to comment on the fundraiser or the petition for Burns’ reinstatement. “It’s a nuisance,” she said of the employee-sponsored efforts, adding that management “is focused on providing a good paper for the community.”

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