Santa Barbara Union Claims Paper’s Attorney Crashed Meeting

By: Joe Strupp

The never-ending labor saga at the Santa Barbara News-Press continued this week as the union representing newsroom staffers filed yet another charge with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the newspaper’s attorney interfered with a private meeting that union organizers were holding Tuesday night.

The meeting occurred just hours after the paper published a stinging column by Editorial Page Editor Travis Armstrong that slammed the union’s protest activities and attacked local public officials for supporting them.

“It’s been a sorry spectacle to witness some of my former colleagues humiliate themselves in front of the News-Press building over the last days,” the column said, in part. “How desperation can reduce former journalism professionals to banging kitchen utensils to make noise is worthy of a UCSB psychology study.”

Armstrong’s comments were aimed at former newsroom employees, including eight who claim they were unjustly fired, who have been engaged in a string of protests this week after six of them lost their jobs last week. Those latest firings were in response to the staffers raising a banner over a local freeway overpass that urged a boycott of the paper.

The events follow last week’s firing of reporters Dawn Hobbs, Rob Kuznia, Barney McManigal, John Zant, Melissa Evans and Tom Schultz, who took part in the banner hanging on Feb. 2. They followed the earlier firings of Anna Davison and Melinda Burns.

The Graphics Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which was voted in to represent newsroom employees last fall, filed an NLRB charge on Wednesday claiming that a News-Press attorney had disrupted a union meeting on Tuesday.

“The Union filed the charge today because [Tuesday] its General Counsel, David J. Millstein, interrupted and intruded upon a private union meeting held among News-Press discriminatees, union organizers and advertisers in the newspaper, interfered with the private lawful discussion at the meeting, and refused to leave when asked to do so,” a union statement said. “The meeting was an invitation-only gathering in a room in Santa Barbara rented by the union to discuss possible ways to engage News-Press owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw in a productive dialogue that would, it was hoped, result in some progress in the ongoing dispute between the Union and the newspaper, and the community and the newspaper.”

A copy of the charge, obtained by E&P, claimed that Millstein went to the meeting “for the purposes of surveillance and interference with lawful discussion at the meeting.”

Millstein could not be reached for comment Thursday. Agnus Huff, a spokeswoman for the newspaper, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Wednesday’s NLRB charge follows a previous charge filed by the union last week that claimed the newspaper, and another of its attorneys, A. Barry Cappello, illegally threatened workers. The charge, posted on an employee-run Web site, claimed Cappello violated workers rights by telling them they would lose their jobs if they engaged in protest acts similar to the banner incident.

The recent events are the latest in a long-running battle at the paper between newsroom workers and owner Wendy McCaw dating back to the July 6, 2006 resignation of several editors, including top editor Jerry Roberts, who claimed McCaw was interfering in newsroom decisions.

Since then, 38 employees have either quit or been fired, the newsroom has voted in the Teamster unit as its representative, and various NLRB complaints have been filed by both sides. McCaw has also challenged the union vote and sued a reporter for the American Journalism Review for libel after she wrote an article about the dispute.

The NLRB issued a complaint in December that found the News-Press engaged in unfair labor practices and improperly sought to discourage union activities. The complaint, prompted by a string of employee charges filed with the NLRB in recent months, cited several examples of anti-union actions at the paper, including the suspension of several employees and the previous firing of a former reporter.

The NLRB set a Feb. 26 hearing date before an administrative law judge who will determine if any of the charges are valid.

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