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NLRB Judge Rejects News-Press‘ Unionization Objections


After nearly two months of waiting, the dwindling newsroom of the Santa Barbara News-Press got the news they’d been waiting to hear: The federal government approved last September’s 33-6 unionization vote, so the Teamsters — or, more specifically, the Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — are here to stay, barring any successful appeals by the newspaper.

That was the decision issued last Thursday, March 8, by Judge William Schmidt (pictured), the administrative law judge working on behalf of the National Labor Relations Board. Schmidt decided to reject the objections raised by News-Press management over the September 27 vote based on what he learned during a two-day hearing at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court on State Street in January. (For a recap of that hearing, see round one, part one here; round one, part two here; and the second day here.) See Schmidt’s 22-page March 8 decision in PDF form here.

The four objections rejected by Schmidt on behalf of the NLRB are: 1) that an anonymous threat of cyber-sabotage and other criminal acts posted on the Blogabarbara website led to an intimidating atmosphere of fear and reprisal; 2) that the union’s propaganda-like use of the News-Press name and logo during the unionization voting period made the employees think that the newspaper’s management was in favor of the union; 3) that the loud marching and in-office organizing tactics of the union on August 24 was coercive; and 4) that supervisors engaged in pro-union activities during the voting period. In recommending that each of these objections be overruled, Schmidt is asserting that none of these objections were strong enough to warrant a second union vote.

Furthermore, the tone of Schmidt’s decision makes it seem that he did not believe much of what the News-Press management was saying. For instance, he said that the testimony of Travis Armstrong and Scott Steepleton contained “extreme embellishments,” such as Armstrong’s description of employees marching through the office as reminscent of “storm troopers.” Schmidt also felt that Armstrong “evidenced a strong, visceral bias toward this organizing campaign.” Schmidt wrote, “In addition, his fortuitous and positive identification at the hearing of GCC organizer [Marty] Keegan as the individual he twice observed sans his glasses from his apartment window sitting in a vehicle parked on an adjacent street late at night had no ring of truthfulness at all. For these reasons, I do not credit his self-serving characterizations without convincing corroboration.”

Schmidt, on the other hand, had words of praise for reporter Thomas Schultz. He wrote, “By contrast, I found the testimony of Thomas Schultz…to be highly credible. As to the July 13 event, he calmly agreed with a few of Armstrong’s assertions and added important factual detail with no apparent attempt to embellish what actually occurred.” Additionally, Schmidt found the testimony of former Life page editor Andrea Huebner and former assistant city editor Dale Myers to be honest and reliable. Schmidt also agreed that newsroom staffers, moreso than many other types of employees, are fully capable of determining truth from fiction.

As expected, the Teamsters attorney Ira Gottlieb was pleased with the news. “In a sense, the decision thoroughly discredited the News-Press‘s whole view of everybody on our side being either the intimidators or the intimidated,” said Gottlieb on Monday afternoon. “[That notion] was just rejected.”

The News-Press management and owner Wendy McCaw, on the other hand, were most likely unhappy about the news, if not downright livid. But it would be hard to know for sure, because they have not yet issued any statement about the decision. The newspaper’s spokesperson Agnes Huff was contacted over the phone and via email by this reporter a little after 2 p.m. She quickly responded over email to say that she was seeing “whether or not a statement will be forthcoming from the News-Press.” When contacted a third time at 4:40 p.m., Huff promptly responded, “Thanks for checking back. No word yet. You’ll have to go with what you have. Sorry.” As of 5 p.m., no comments had been issued by the News-Press. If Huff or any other News-Press spokesperson is able to issue a comment, it will be immediately added to this article.

So what now? According to Gottlieb, the News-Press has 14 days to file an appeal. But given that the judge’s “persuasive and thorough” decision, Gottlieb doubts that the newspaper will go down that path. The only remaining option, then, is to sit down at the bargaining table and start hashing out the nitty gritty of a contract. How soon that will happen is unclear, but it could be within a couple weeks, according to Gottlieb.

What impact will this have on the numerous reporters who have been fired over the past few months? “It doesn’t affect them directly,” Gottlied explained. “It’s really kind of a boost of morale at this point.” Indeed, of the 33 who voted for the union back in September, it seems that a mere fraction are left.

However, Gottlieb did say that he expects the NLRB to announce tomorrow, Tuesday, March 13, whether they would be pursuing the unfair labor practice complaints related to the most recent seven firings. The NLRB was slated to start hearing the charges filed over Melinda Burns’ firing on Monday, March 12, but the board has put that hearing off indefinitely until the new complaints can be addressed.

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