UPDATE: Santa Barbara Saga Continues With 6 Reporters Fired

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By: Joe Strupp

Exactly seven months after the first of a string of resignations occurred at the Santa Barbara News-Press, sparking a long-running newsroom battle that has included federal labor complaints and a vote for Teamster representation, another six reporters have left the paper. But this time they were allegedly fired, according to union leaders, who claim the dismissals were in retaliation for union organizing activities.

The Associated Press reports late Tuesday that the six were canned “for placing a sign over a freeway overpass urging people to cancel their subscription to the newspaper, an attorney for the newspaper said Tuesday.” They helped hang a banner last Friday during morning rush hour that read “Cancel Your Newspaper Today” and “Protect Free Speech,” according to attorney Jerry Cappello.

?They are trying to injure and disparage the company,? Cappello told the AP. ?People who want to engage in conduct that harms the newspaper … will not remain.?

Earlier Tuesday, E&P first broke the news. “In a blatant bare-knuckled attack on its employees’ rights to engage in expressive labor activity in support of their desire to be represented by a Union and to protest their employer’s recent unlawful employment decisions, the Santa Barbara News-Press yesterday fired three of the remaining stalwart union supporters,” a statement from union leaders read, in part. “In past unlawful firings by the News-Press, management took the trouble to invent a pretext for the discharges, which the Union fully expects the NLRB to see through. In yesterday’s firings, however, the News-Press simply fired the three employees for the stated reason that they engaged in collective expressive activity on behalf of their union which is fully protected by the National Labor Relations Act.”

Union Attorney Ira Gottlieb updated the information today, telling E&P that another two reporters lost their jobs on Tuesday. Then word of another firing came.

News-Press spokeswoman Agnes Huff did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.

The employees fired on Monday, Dawn Hobbs, Rob Kuznia and Barney McManigal, were among the union’s top supporters, leaders say, playing a major role in the effort to have the newsroom represented by the Teamsters. That occurred last fall when the rank and file employees voted for representation, a vote that newspaper management later challenged unsuccessfully.

Gottlieb said the reporters who were let go on Tuesday were Tom Schultz and Melissa Evans.

The union statement also said the union planned to file an unfair labor practices charge over the firings with the National Labor Relations Board. “The Union hopes that with this latest extreme violation of the [National Labor Relations] Act by the News-Press, the [NLRB] will at last be convinced that [News-Press parent company] Ampersand and its owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw are just the kind of labor law ‘bad actors’ that invite and compel invocation of the most stringent and powerful enforcement tools in the NLRB’s arsenal.”

These firings bring to 34 the number of News-Press employees who have either quit or been fired since the protest began on July 5, 2006. On that date, several top editors, including editor Jerry Roberts, left. Since then, newsroom employees have battled management over claims that McCaw has meddled in editorial decisions and engaged in unfair labor practices to block union organizing.

McCaw has countered with claims that some news coverage has been biased and filed her own NLRB charges. The paper also filed a libel suit against a reporter for American Journalism Review in December after the publication ran a story about the ongoing turmoil.

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.

Specifically, that complaint consolidated six charges by employees that were filed between August and November, many related to the union organizing efforts at the paper. The complaint stated that, because of those actions, the newspaper had been “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights” guaranteed to them under the National Labor Relations Act.

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