NLRB Hearing Opens in Bitter Santa Barbara Fight

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By: Lawyers for the Santa Barbara News-Press contended Tuesday that eight workers were fired for disloyalty and biased reporting.

Attorneys for the employees countered that they were targeted over union organizing efforts.

"This management action was intended as a death blow to the union support, though it may well have had the opposite effect," attorney Ira Gottleib said during the opening of a National Labor Relations Board hearing in the case.

The agency alleges in a 15-count complaint that the paper with a circulation of 38,000 in the wealthy seaside community fired workers who had no prior history of disciplinary action only after they began to fight for union representation.

NLRB attorney Steven Wyllie said the paper's management "intensified their attacks on the employees" in the weeks following a September election in which newsroom workers overwhelmingly voted to form a union.

The government contends that two employees were illegally fired in January for alleged biased reporting, with six others let go the next month after protesting those firings and urging residents to cancel their subscriptions.

An editor was also improperly fired for refusing to reprimand one of the fired reporters, the government claims.

The newspaper offered its most detailed defense yet against the allegations.

"We have never terminated anyone for their pro-union or anti-union stance," attorney Barry Cappello said in his opening statement before an administrative law judge.

Cappello said the goal of the union was not higher wages or better working conditions. Instead, its "sole goal is to take control of the newspaper, so that the owner of the newspaper, the publisher of the newspaper, does not have any involvement in how they write their stories or publish their stories," he said.

In testimony, the paper's top newsroom editor, Scott Steepleton, defended the firing of six employees who unfolded a banner over a highway overpass urging passers-by to cancel their subscriptions.

"They were fired for disloyalty against the company," Steepleton said.

Newspaper attorneys referred to a December memo from owner and publisher Wendy McCaw defending her right to influence the content of her own paper and telling workers they owed the paper a "duty of loyalty."

Cappello said biased reporting was a huge issue for McCaw from the time she bought the paper from the New York Times Co. in 2000.

A study commissioned soon after showed that 47 percent of readers thought the paper was slanted or unfair in its reporting. A second study in 2005 showed that 64 percent of readers thought reporters "projected their own ideas into stories," Cappello said.

"She wanted to eliminate the reporter's sense of entitlement that they could write what they wanted, when they wanted," Cappello said.

Steepleton said one reporter was fired for writing a story about a city beautification effort that included the uprooting of 50 trees.

The story did not contain comment from anyone objecting to the tree removal, Steepleton said, even though the paper had itself editorialized against it and readers had written letters protesting the decision.

Steepleton said McCaw reprimanded him personally for allowing bias in the tree removal article and other stories.

NLRB and union attorneys tried to show the paper used a double standard when disciplining reporters for alleged unbalanced reporting, firing several who were union supporters and keeping others.

Wyllie asked Steepleton questions designed to show he either edited some of the stories in question or failed to discipline other editors who approved stories written by the fired reporters.

Steepleton's testimony was scheduled to continue Tuesday.

The NLRB wants the eight former employees reinstated with back pay.

The News-Press has been embroiled in newsroom controversy since last July, when several top editors quit, saying McCaw meddled with news coverage.

The paper countered that the former employees had let their personal opinions influence news decisions.

The hearing was expected to examine 15 unfair labor practice allegations the NLRB has levied against Ampersand Publishing LLC, the paper's corporate parent. McCaw herself is expected to testify at some point.

At the hearing's conclusion, the judge's findings will be presented to the full NLRB for possible action.

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