NLRB Round One

Day One in News-Press Legal Action on Union Vote

Tuesday, January 9, 2007
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Scott Steepleton Takes the Stand Tuesday Morning

Despite the level of anticipation gripping Santa Barbarans over the fate of their longtime daily newspaper, the courtroom pews were only halfway filled on Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court on State Street. nlrb.jpg That's when the Judge William L. Schmidt, as the eyes and ears of the National Labor Relations Board, began hearing objections from News-Press management over the newsroom's 33-6 September 27 vote in favor of joining the Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

One the left side of the room seated before the judge was David Millstein and Sandra McCandless, who played the lead attorney role in this proceeding. Next to them was Scott Steepleton, the white-haired, stout N-P editor dressed in crisp white shirt and purple-pink tie who took the witness stand first.

On the right side was Teamsters attorney Ira Gottlieb and former N-P reporter Melinda Burns. And after some pre-hearing talk about whether Teamsters rep Marty Keegan was served a subpoena at his place of business or at a "house with the barking dogs," Keegan himself walked through the doors and took his seat.

Before beginning, the judge reminded the N-P legal team that although they've raised these objections, they can rescind any or all of them at any time. "Don't dismiss that as a crazy thought," said Schmidt, who was wearing a polka dotted bow tie. "It's not the end of the world to sit at the bargaining table and have discussions that may or may not lead to a collective bargaining agreement." He then advised that perhaps the Teamsters might also consider a similar path and retry the vote, especially because their margin of victory was so high. Both sides thanked him for the opportunity, but then trudged forth.

Explaining the hearing, Judge Schmidt explained that the News-Press management had the burden of proof to show that their objections did "destroy the laboratory conditions, or at least impair the laboratory conditions" of the election. McCandless declined to give an opening argument, merely stating that she did not believe the laboratory conditions were present.

Ira's Opening

Gottlieb, however, did give a statement to the effect that this hearing was "not about due process." "We're here because of denial and delay," said Gottlieb, citing the overwhelming majority (85 percent) of the newsroom staff in favor of unionization. He then said that the objections were examples of "frivolity" in that three of the four had already been reviewed and tossed out by the National Labor Relations Board as unfair labor practices. (That does not automatically mean, however, that this judge will rule the same way.)

The other claim about an anonymous threat posted on the Blogabarbara website was also a moot point, offered Gottlieb, because the News-Press management itself later posted the threat themselves. Regardless, third party threats, Gottlieb explained, were no longer given much consideration by the NLRB. And furthermore, the NLRB found about 10 years ago that two bomb threats were not enough to overturn a union vote that only had 59 percent support.

But at the heart of Gottlieb's opening was this central notion: management's claim that the various Teamster activities influenced the election is bogus because reporters, as a lot, are not easily fooled. "They're trained to check out sources, trained to be skeptical," said Gottlieb, explaining that, contrary to management's claims, the newsroom staff did not ever think that the Wendy McCaw and her management team ever endorsed the union. Gottlieb would later produce anti-union editorials penned by Wendy McCaw, who was not present, and Travis Armstrong, who was in the courtroom, wearing a tan coat, dark grey tie, and blue-and-white pinstriped shirt.

What Does Scott Know?

With that, Scott Steepleton, a nearly seven-year N-P editor, took the stand. McCandless called Steepleton, who current newsroom employees claim is the face of much intimidation these days, in an attempt to show that supervisors were involved in the union organizing efforts, that the Teamsters were secretly behind the website and subscription cancellation plans, that the newsroom was intimidating when it marched through the halls and tried to deliver McCaw a letter, and that the threat posted on Blogabarbara was indeed threatening.

Steepleton was on vacation when Jerry Roberts resigned and the first wave of newsroom employees left, but came back to get a promotion to city editor. He described the newsroom atmosphere as "quite tense," that reporters would go from desk to desk "whispering," and said that one reporter called him aside and said that "things are going to happen but don't take them personal."

Steepleton spent a good deal of time describing the website, and tried to give the impression that he thought it was run by newsroom employees. But then he discovered some Teamsters support when he "drilled down" into the website, which was apparently a ploy by McCandless to show that the union engaged in misrepresentation. He also recalled seeing reporter Tom Schultz's car with the News-Press masthead (which the witness called a "logo") and a "Save the News-Press" poster. Judge Schmidt, however, said that the NLRB no longer cared about misrepresentation, so McCandless claimed that it was more like forgery, and therefore a different matter. The judge took it under consideration.

To describe the time that newsroom employees marched toward Wendy McCaw's office with a letter of demands, Steepleton stood and stomped his feet loudly. He said that he was scared it was another "mass resignation" and that he may have to put out the paper himself. He later said he was also intimidated by what he described as a "mob" standing at Wendy McCaw's office door, jiggling her doorknob, and trying to get in. That march eventually led to Yolanda Apodaca's office, which prompted Gottlieb to call for Apodaca, who was seated next to Travis Armstrong in the courtroom wearing a black jacket and black spectacles, to be sequestered. The judge denied that.

As for Blogabarbara, Steepleton described it as a "local website that essentially pokes fun at the Santa Barbara News-Press." He saw a copy of the threat that was posted on the website, which outlined a way to take out much of the newspaper's staff. Steepleton said what concerned him first was the date, September 11, suggesting that it was a connection to terrorism and that as such the threat should be considered serious.

Breaktime and Then Some

During a short break, many former and current News-Press staffers mingled in the main lobby area with smiles, including Tom Schultz, who was wearing a piece of duct tape twisted into a ribbon and pinned to his lapel. Meanwhile, the tall Travis Armstrong, the paper's editorial page editor whose shift last summer to a newsroom supervisor triggered much of the meltdown, talked to attorneys Millstein and McCandless in the corner. Steepleton emerged from the courtroom and walked straight to the restroom, without so much as a nod to anyone.

After the break, The Indy was drawn into the mess when a photocopied page was entered as an exhibit to show that one supervisor named Dale Myers was involved at a rally. (He was in a photograph.) Steepleton also testified that Andrea Huebner, the paper's former Life editor, was at a rally too. It was then Gottlieb's turn for cross-examination, which lasted until lunch at 12:20 p.m. Gottlieb went on the offensive against Steepleton, trying to get him impeached for having been a liar (based on his alleged March 2000 firing from the LA Times for being "dishonest") and for having motivations against the employees. Millstein shot up from his seat to get those charges omitted from the record, but the judge denied it. McCandless was allowed to go on the record explaining that just because Gottlieb raises these points don't make them true.

Gottlieb spent awhile going through the newspaper management's moves leading up to the unionization drive. Included in those tactics were the hiring of consultants Bob Long and Jim Anderson, who advised on how to bust the union, and head counts of who might vote.

The judge was not impressed with this line of inquiry, because it showed the obvious strategies employed by any employer in a similar situation. Noting that what Gottlieb wanted to know was probably the result of such counting, the judge blurted, "You'd have to be blind, deaf (which he pronounced "deef"), and dumb not to find out who was for the union and who was against the union." It was an example of the relaxed courtroom atmosphere in this hearing, where, without a jury watching on, the judge is able to move questioning along quickly, accept more hearsay and less foundation that normal, and even advise the lawyers on how to better ask their questions. In some cases, the judge himself asked the pertinent questions.

Admitting the Numbers

When finally asked the result of those head counts, Steepleton said, "Our assessment was that the union would win the election," confirming that it would be by "a large percentage." Though testimony carried on from there, including an audience-laughter-fueling claim by Steepleton that he doesn't have anything to do with the editorials and that he doesn't regularly read them, this admission by Steepleton seems to be crucial to all of the objections levied by the newspaper's management.

If Steepleton and the rest of the N-P management admit that "a large percentage" of the newsroom staff were going to vote in favor of joining a union, doesn't that mean that none of their objections have merit? Given that Steepleton admitted more than 25 people were marching in the office, it seems that the News-Press is admitting that the pro-union vote was inevitable. Doesn't that make this all a waste of time?

In any case, it's time to head back to the courtroom right now. It's about 2:30 p.m., and court's been going on for more than an hour now, likely with either Travis Armstrong or Yolanda Apodaca on the stand. Check back later for another report.

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