Frightening & Intimidating

News-Press  Challenges Union Victory

by Nick Welsh

In the singular Perry Mason moment of the Santa Barbara News-Press case against the Teamsters, embattled editorial page editor Travis Armstrong on Tuesday all but accused lead Teamster organizer Marty Keegan of stalking him. In a federal hearing room, Armstrong testified he was the acting publisher at the time of the suspicious incident publishers Wendy McCaw and Arthur Von Wiesenberger having left for the Mediterranean — and that he was having trouble sleeping. Armstrong recounted looking out his window and seeing a man standing in front of an SUV across the street, staring toward his apartment.

Armstrong said he hadn’t seen the man again until the court proceedings, when he identified the late-night lookout as Keegan, the Teamster organizer who spearheaded the union drive that culminated in late September’s 33-6 newsroom vote in favor of unionizing. During a break in the proceedings, Keegan denied Armstrong’s accusation, stating, “I have no idea where he lives, and until today, I had not ever laid eyes on the man.” Besides, Keegan added, he drives a Chrysler Concorde, not an SUV. 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.

Although the Teamsters won overwhelmingly and 95 percent of eligible newsroom workers cast ballots — the election results have not been certified because News-Press management has charged the union and its newsroom supporters engaged in coercive and intimidating behavior. This week’s legal proceeding — held under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — aims to evaluate the News-Press’s claims.

Specifically, the newspaper owners contend that the election results were tainted because some editors and managers actively supported the Teamsters; that the Web site — operated and maintained by the Teamsters on behalf of the News-Press union drive — falsely gave workers the impression that the paper’s owners supported the union effort; that an employee’s car bearing the News-Press masthead next to a pro-union bumper sticker gave the same false impression; that union supporters in the newsroom engaged in job actions that intimidated other workers, such as marching en masse to Wendy McCaw’s office to deliver a letter of demands; and finally, that an anonymous post on the BlogaBarbara Web site threatening to inflict mayhem, cyber-sabotage, and vandalism on the News-Press computer system and newspaper racks created an atmosphere of such fear and intimidation that a fair election was impossible.

Teamster attorney Ira Gottlieb noted that the News-Press had already unsuccessfully filed three of the four allegations as unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. In one of those instances, the NLRB found the company’s two-day suspension of the 14 workers who marched to McCaw’s office constituted an unfair labor practice. Gottlieb stated the union had no responsibility for anonymous threats posted on the Web and argued that McCaw, knowing she was going to lose the union election by a large margin, issued a press release about the cyber threat just days before the election even though the posting had occurred months earlier. “We’re here today because of denial and delay,” Gottlieb declared.

On the witness stand, Associate Editor Scott Steepleton and Armstrong described union activists behaving like “a mob” or “storm troopers.” Steepleton stood up twice to demonstrate their stomping gait as they marched on McCaw’s office. When asked how he felt at the time, Steepleton said, “Scared.

Intimidated,” though he later acknowledged he was never personally threatened. When Human Resources Director Yolanda Apodaca tried to relay complaints of union intimidation she’d heard from two News-Press workers who demanded anonymity, Administrative Law Judge William Schmidt — normally congenial — 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. This is not a star chamber. No. This hearing room is about due process.”

At the end of the day, Gottlieb moved to have all charges dismissed outright, arguing the News-Press failed to meet its burden of proof. While Judge Schmidt agreed some of the charges against the union seemed notably thin — supervisorial interference in particular — he said he was inclined to give the allegations of intimidating behavior greater scrutiny before rendering a decision.

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