Yolanda Apodaca, Travis Armstrong, and Former N-P Supervisors Take Stand
With Nick Welsh
The National Labor Relations Board hearing over the News-Press management’s objections to the September 2006 vote to unionize continued after the Tuesday’s lunch break with testimony from opinion page editor Travis Armstrong, human resources director Yolanda Apodaca, and former News-Press supervisors Dale Myers, Andrea Huebner, Don Murphy , and Jane Hulse. (Click here for a full run-down of the day’s earlier proceeding, which was primarily testimony from Scott Steepleton.)
First to the stand was the newspaper’s editorial page editor Travis Armstrong. In what amounted to the trial’s closest thing to a Perry Mason moment, Armstrong accused Marty Keegan, the lead Teamster organizer, of all but stalking him, late one night even lurking in the street outside Armstrong’s apartment last summer. Armstrong testified he was the acting publisher at the time — Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger were vacationing on the Mediteranean — and that he was having trouble sleeping. When he looked out his window, he said he saw a man across the street near an SUV staring at his apartment. Armstrong said he hadn’t seen the man before, but now that he was in court, he could identify the stalker as Keegan.
During a break in the proceedings, Keegan denied Travis’ accusation, stating, “I have no idea where he lives and until today, this is the first time I ever laid eyes on the man.” Keegan said he was “shocked,” by Armstrong’s accusation, but dismissed it as “street theater” calculated to undermine the credibility of the Teamsters’ organizing drive.
On the witness stand, Armstrong was as softspoken and diffident in person as he is outspoken and acerbic in print. Most of his testimony dwelt on how he’d felt intimidated and threatened during the labor strife engulfing the News-Press, and how he’d been sworn at and reviled by News-Press workers.
Armstrong cited two specific incidents that were especially frightening. The first took place on July 13, when a group of newsroom workers first filed into his office en masse with a letter demanding that he reinstate the five high-ranking editors who quit on July 6. Armstrong described the small gathering as threatening and intimidating, so he asked that they leave. They declined to do so, he testified, until they delivered the letter.
“I couldn’t have gotten out if I wanted,” he said, adding that while the whole event took less than five minutes, “It felt like an eternity.” Under cross examination by Teamster attorney Ira Gottlieb, Armstrong conceded that he sought no disciplinary action against the workers who barged into his office.
Armstrong also detailed how he’d been cursed at by former Metro Editor Jane Hulse, who repeatedly spat, “Fuck you, Travis,” at him as he escorted former Editor-in-Chief Jerry Roberts out of the building on July 6. He described Hulse as “hysterical,” saying “she lost it,” and added that reporter Dawn Hobbs and columnist Starshine Roshell had similarly reviled him.
Armstrong also buttressed Steepleton’s “mob”-like description of the August 24 march of newsroom workers from Hobbs desk to Wendy McCaw’s office. He likened them to “strorm troopers,” insisting they “marched” down the hall rather than walked. This assemblage of workers — described variously in number from 14 to 25 — had hoped to deliver a letter to McCaw, who had returned from her summer vacation by then and had resumed her duties as publisher. The letter demanded that she meet with them and a delegation of community leaders to discuss the melt-down at the News-Press. Not long afterwards, at least 14 newsroom workers who participated in this late afternoon rally received disciplinary notices that they’d been suspended for two days. Ultimately, however, those “sentences” were never carried out.
The paper’s human resources director Yolanda Apodaca (pictured) was far less dramatic in her recital of the events of August 24. Under cross-examination from Gottlieb, she conceded that she’d agreed to convey the letter to McCaw, and for her efforts received an e-mail from pro-union reporter Tom Schultz thanking her. She responded with an e-mail of her own, telling Schultz he was welcome. Because she misspelled the word “welcome,” Apodaca wrote Schultz four days later, repeating that he was welcome. On the witness stand, she said she was thanking him for his good manners.
Apodaca’s testimony appeared to help the union far more than the News-Press. She described under cross-examination, for example, how Schultz had e-mailed her describing how he had removed the paper’s masthead from the pro-union montage of bumper stickers displayed in the back window of his car. One of the News-Press management’s four objections was that the placement of that masthead next to a pro-union bumper sticker and a SavetheNewsPress.com bumper sticker, Schultz was somehow intimating that News-Press management was supporting the union drive. But Apodaca acknowledged that Schultz notified her that he’d removed the offending masthead by August 10. Not coincidentally, that was the same date the Teamsters filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a union election. How could the pro-union message Schultz was making with his car taint the election if he removed it?, asked union attorney Gottlieb.
On the witness stand, Apodaca (pictured with Scott Steepleton) was exceptionally low-key, but when News-Press attorney Sandra McCandless asked Apodaca to relate complaints made to her by unnamed News-Press workers, the polka-dot-bow-tied administrative law judge William L. Schmidt came unglued. “Are you saying that some anonymous employee is going to come in and testify that they were intimidated?” the judge demanded. “Not in my hearing room,” he answered. “This is not a star chamber. No. This hearing room is about due process.”
Bring on the Supes
One of the News-Press’ key allegations is that the union election was corrupted by newsroom supervisors who allegedly championed the union cause. None of the witnesses the News-Press presented in this regard were very compelling. Did they voice pro-union sympathies? Yes, but for most it was only after they’d resigned from their positions at the paper and were no longer in a position of potentially coercive authority.
One glaring exception was Dale Myers, who served as assistant city editor, though only for two months before being fired. (Earlier in the day, N-P attorneys cited this photograph from The Indy as evidence or his pro-union involvement.) Unapologetically pro-union in his sympathies, Myers readily admitted he supported the union and declined management instructions that he work to defeat the union drive. He also admitted he attended several rallies in De la Guerra Plaza that were sympathetic to the union cause. [CORRECTION: Myers, in fact, resigned, and only attended one rally.] To the extent that Myers discussed the union with reporters and copy editors, he said they invariably initiated the conversation first and told him what was happening, not the other way around
Next up was former Life page editor Andrea Huebner, who was fired by Scott Steepleton (pictured). With precise and clear testimony, Huebner easily deflected N-P attorney Sandra McCandless’ allegations of impropriety. Yes, Huebner admitted to being at a pro-union rally, but only as a spectator and a mentor to an intern who had been assigned to cover the story by Steepleton. She proved a strong witness for the union’s case, explaining that she strayed from discussing unionization with employees. As well, she denied that the employees “stomped” their way to McCaw’s office, as Steepleton and Armstrong claimed.
Following Huebner’s testimony came Don Murphy, the paper’s former deputy managing editor and an employee for nearly 20 years. Sporting his white hair in a tight full-head buzz, Murphy admitted to chatting about unions with former N-P columnist Starshine Roshell on the loading dock. The nature of the conversation? Murphy said that he thought he was leaving and that employees who decided to stay would do well to look into union representation. That was the most damning thing offered by Murphy, who continued to go to union-related functions after he quit. Judge Schmidt did not care about post-employment involvement, however, because it had nothing to do with the objections.
The judge did try to clarify the nature of the “turmoil” at the office that every witness attested to. Judge Schmidt asked whether the story killed about Rob Lowe was the only reason there was tension and concern in the newsroom. Murphy replied, “There were other things going on.” Neither attorney jumped at the chance to further investigate that answer, though it seems that the Teamsters may have been able to elicit some interesting testimony had they done so.
After Murphy came the entirely lackluster questioning of Jane Hulse (whose married last name is Chawkins.) Apparently, these NLRB hearings lack the discovery phase of typical legal showdowns, because Sandra McCandless was clearly fishing for some evidence that Hulse talked about unions with the employees she supervised. Hulse denied all of that, which prompted the judge to question what point McCandless and company were trying to prove. The judge even cited a Frontline program about a Wal-Mart manager who is leading the unionization of his employees, and how not even that is much cause for concern for the NLRB.
To that, attorney David Millstein responded that this was a different case because the employees were asking for their old bosses back. That “reeks of collusion,” argued Millstein. “I know what you’re saying,” replied Judge Schmidt, a casual, competent overseer with a clear understanding of labor law, “but it doesn’t knock me down, yet.” McCandless and Millstein then rested their case.
Motioning to Dismiss
As expected, Teamsters attorney Ira Gottlieb took the resting of the News-Press as a chance to present a motion to dismiss the objections outright. A few sentences into his oration, Gottlieb echoed most everyone in the courtroom when he asked, “Is that all there is?” He argued that not a single employee was called to testify about intimidation and that it was just insult to injury for the N-P‘s lawyers to claim that the employees were “dupes” and “gullible” enough to not realize that the newspaper’s management was against the union. Motions to dismiss are rarely granted in any type of case, but there were good odds Tuesday afternoon that this judge might see fit to do so. No matter what side one supports, there was very little evidence presented, and the case against the union and against the overwhelmingly pro-union staff was quite weak.
Nonetheless, Judge Schmidt said that he didn’t want to make a quick decision in this case because he needed to take “quite seriously” the matters about the Blogabarbara threat and the SavetheNewsPress.com website. Yet in doing so, he also seemed to be confused about the objection, because he kept referring to matters of “employee loyalty” and how his opinion about it differed from the NLRB’s. Gottlieb tried to explain as much, and say that the objection did not pertain to what the judge was discussing, but the matter was left unresolved.
Although he didn’t officially throw out half of the objections, Judge Schmidt did express his distaste for the two objections related to supervisor involvement and the intimidating march. “If that was all there was to the case,” he said, “I would stop it right now.”
With that, the hearing was adjourned for the day, with the case starting up again with the Teamsters witnesses tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.