to take a position on one of its board member's decisions
to cross the Detroit strikers' picket line creates a
protest among some of the organization's members sp.
THE EMOTION OF the Detroit newspaper strike touched the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association recently, as some members protested a board officer's decision to accept a job as a replacement worker.
The NLGJA board, however, opted not to take a position regarding the hiring of its vice president, Jennifer Juarez Robles, as a replacement worker at the Detroit Free Press, nor on the strike itself, other than to urge its speedy resolution.
"The thinking of the board was: This is an organization focused on the issues of promoting a more fair and accurate way gays and lesbians are portrayed and treated in the workplace," explained NLGJA president Leroy Aarons.
"The organization is a wide mix of people of varying opinions: people in management; people in the rank and file; people in rank and file who felt it was not an issue for NLGJA; people in management who thought it might be. There was a broad variety of opinion," he said.
"The issue had escalated to a level of emotional charge that threatened to be extraordinarily divisive and potentially destructive to the organization," Aarons said.
"The issue had gone beyond Jennifer Juarez Robles as a person who crossed the picket line . . . . It had gotten to that charged point where it was a symbolic issue here," he said, noting that there was pressure from both sides.
"So we were in the middle of a potential firestorm that had very little to do with a personal decision of an individual that happened only three weeks prior to the event," Aarons said.
"We were in an emotional setting with a national conference focusing on the goals and aims of the organization, including a busy board meeting where we were casting a three-year plan for the future," he added.
"It was not the kind of an environment in which a kind of deliberate discussion could be held. It had gotten extremely emotionally charged, and the issues seemed, to me, to have transcended the individual issue and become something that parties to the strike had [a stake in].
"For us to step into that political minefield would have been destructive," he added.
The issue was brought to the board's attention in a letter signed by concerned members, including Free Press and News staffers, which was presented to the board during the NLGJA convention in Washington.
The letter did not request any action be taken by the board but was intended to express the signatories' "shock and disapproval" of Robles' actions.
"We recognize Jennifer's personal right to decide to cross a picket line and take a job as a reporter on a scab newspaper," they wrote. "However, Jennifer is a national leader of the NLGJA and we believe her behavior does not set the proper moral tone for this organization."
The letter continued, "Many journalists, gay, lesbian, straight and people of color, are risking their jobs and careers in the Detroit newspaper strike to maintain decent working conditions for the journalism industry. To have a national leader of our organization undermine their struggle is humiliating and disgraceful.
"Many of us have joined the NLGJA because we have felt isolated, sometimes even threatened as gays and lesbians in our newsrooms," they wrote. "We joined because the organization provides support and encouragement to serve this profession well and to be who we are as gay people.
"To have a national leader, who by her actions threatens the livelihoods of other gay and lesbian journalists, contradicts the mission of the NLGJA. To have a national leader who displays such a lack of respect and threat to other members is deeply distressing," the letter concluded.
Accompanying that letter was another from the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists noting that "when one has vowed to represent a group's professional interests, she should know that her every professional action reflects not only upon her, but the whole of the organization.
"We are concerned about the message that Jennifer Juarez Robles' decision to cross the picket line sends to the newspaper industry," the Detroit NABJ letter continued. "Free Press management is certainly proud that they have recruited a high-ranking officer of your group; they actually sent an e-mail message to their employees touting her position in NLGJA."
Nancy Costello, a striking Free Press reporter who signed the NLGJA letter, said she spoke to Robles four times before she accepted the job. Among other things, Costello said she tried to explain to Robles how miserable life as a replacement worker might become.
It was after Free Press management touted Robles' position with NLGJA that Costello said she started thinking more about the issue.
Had Robles not been an officer of NLGJA, Costello said she would have been upset, but no letter would have been presented to the board.
"NLGJA is not just a gay and lesbian organization that works for the accurate portrayal of gays and lesbians ? it is a journalism organization," Costello said, adding that the Detroit strike could have ramifications at other newspapers.
Costello criticized the board's decision not to take action as "sanitizing" the issue and charged that by not taking a position, the board actually was taking a position.
When asked if her action was personal ? among other things, Robles will take part in company diversity training, a position held by Costello ? Costello's eyes teared up and she said, "I have seen so much hate since this strike started. It's been really hard. I've seen inhumane things done to people.
"When I sat back and started writing this letter, I did not want it to be from the point of hate. Hate is destructive," she said. "I had to sit and think: 'Was I doing this for me or because it's something I believe in?' "
Although she believes her job may be gone, and she may not even stay in journalism, Costello said there "are a lot of people who love this field. This is their lives. It's wrong to have someone walk in and take someone's job away."
The leaders of an organization, Costello continued, should set a "moral tone."
Costello said she sympathized with many of her co-workers who were forced to return to work because of financial duress, but she called taking a job as a replacement worker "unethical."
Robles' only comment on the situation was, "I had a difficult personal decision to make and I think I made the right decision."
Robles was recruited for the Free Press job by city editor Nunzio M. Lupo, who met her when he was scouting for Knight-Ridder at NLGJA's 1994 conference.
Roughly 100 to 150 replacement workers have been hired by the editorial departments of the News and Free Press since the strike began.
In a letter to the NLGJA board praising Robles' work, Lupo noted that "other issues aside, it is crucial for gay men and lesbians such as Jennifer to be represented in every newsroom environment."
Lupo told E&P that he thinks "there are some people here who are feeling personally wronged. They want to make it an organization issue and not speak to the labor issue.
"I have great empathy for people who want to make it an issue, but it's not part of the core" of NLGJA, he said.
Pointing out that the managers are fighting for "something equally important," Lupo noted that the strike has become "very personal."
"So how could my hiring of Jennifer, when Nancy's on strike, not be personal?" he asked.
Board member Gail Shister, TV columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, pointed out that NLGJA has no bylaws in place regarding the use of replacement workers.
"Because we have no precedent, I am personally extremely uncomfortable with verbally clubbing a member and an officer," Shister said.
"We, as an organization, have to be truly careful not to become divisive over the labor issue," Shister added. "Until such bylaws [might be adopted], we have to respect an individual's decision."
A Knight-Ridder employee who has a number of friends at the Free Press, Shister said her decision was not capricious and she can see both sides' point of view.
The issue, Shister said, "bears further discussion. I can see the board talking about it at another time when there is not a strike."
NLGJA president Aarons said he was "pleased that there was restraint shown on all sides, that Nancy Costello did not push us to a level where it would've become a firefight and that the board showed restraint."
At its second meeting during the conference, the board passed a resolution that "had nothing to do with the leadership issue [but] with the strike. I think the resolution speaks for the feeling of our organization," Aarons said.
The resolution reads: "The board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journal-
?("The issue had escalated to a level of emotional charge that threatened to be extraordinarily divisive and potentially destructive to the organization.") [Caption]
?(? Leroy Aarons, president, National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association) [Photo & Caption]
By: Debra Gersh Hernandez National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's refusal