It’s like a football game that never ends. A DVD movie with a thousand alternate endings that replays on your TV night and day. Groundhog Day re-staged in De la Guerra Plaza, without Bill Murray’s laughs.
The fired journalists keep scoring touchdowns against Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw, but coach Barry Cappello keeps sending in new plays. And even though the score is something like 149-2 - even worse than USC’s trouncing of Illinois (my school, sob!) in Tuesday’s Rose Bowl - the game goes on and on and on. The refs keep throwing yellow penalty flags against the McCaw team but she keeps demanding not-so-instant replays. The journos cheer the TDs but McCaw just keeps sending in new players as fast as they graduate from law school. Up in the press box, N-P staff writers crank out new leads declaring victory. TV tells a different story, but so what?
The refs call penalty after penalty: offside against Team McCaw: illegal procedures, ineligible receivers downfield, unsportsmanlike conduct, personal fouls, touchbacks and safeties and everything else in the rule book. Everything, that is, except blow their whistles to end the craziness.
This game has been running now for 18 months but time on the clock seems to be expanding like a Salvador Dali surrealist watch face. If this was a real football game the players would all be drawing Social Security before it ends - if it ever does. It’s like one of those 1930s marathon dances except that McCaw’s legal tapdancers never seem to get tired or slump to the floor.
The year 2006 has gone into 2007 and now 2008. Just the other day, National Labor Relations Board Judge William Kocol ruled that McCaw violated enough federal unfair labor practices to fill a whole L.A. Times sports section. Among other things, his 71-page decision ruled that McCaw must rehire eight journalists fired in retaliation for their union activities. She disregarded their “fundamental rights” as employees, Kocol said. Some people have been saying that the workers have no rights and that McCaw could do anything she wanted. She owns the paper, doesn’t she? No so, the judge ruled. Employees have a legal right under federal law to organize and it’s illegal to try to thwart them.
This was settled in the courts generations ago.
So the yellow flags have been thrown against the paper once more and once more McCaw has vowed to appeal. That’s her legal right too and she can afford it. But the handful of journalists could never have financed this battle if they hadn’t been backed by the NLRB, the Teamsters - and the law of the land. By one estimate, the Teamsters have shelled out $400,000 in the battle, and are still racking up costs without end.
Meanwhile, none of the fired eight can return to work as long as an appeal is pending. But Teamsters attorney Ira “Buddy” Gottlieb announced at Wednesday’s press conference that he’s asked the National Labor Relations Board general counsel to seek a court injunction ordering McCaw to put down the red carpet and escort the writers back into the newsroom.
There are those I talked to Wednesday who are optimistic that this, or even the courts’ reject button to all the appeals McCaw can make, could happen in fairly short order. I’m on the pessimistic side. On the other hand, Kocol’s decision is so stunning that it gives solid backing to the journos’ case.
“The law has finally caught up with Wendy McCaw,” reporter Melinda Burns, fired 14 months ago, told the press conference on the De la Guerra Plaza lawn in front of the News-Press building. “Union organizing is a sacred right in America. The decision shows that you can have millions of dollars and gangs of lawyers, but if you break the law, this is still America and you cannot get away with it.”
“We took down the tyrant,” added fellow reporter Dawn Hobbs.
Burns urged those who have canceled their subscriptions not to re-subscribe and for businesses to pull their ads until McCaw signs a union contract. Nearly 60 employees have quit, including this columnist, or been fired since the meltdown began in July, 2006.
The decision made two important points, observed former Washington Post White House correspondent Lou Cannon: “The right to organize” and the right to ethical journalism. “This is a vindication of honest journalism.” Added Cannon: “Truth will out.” No one, said Cannon, who was with the Post during the Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon’s resignation, “is above the law.” He called on McCaw to “do the right thing, rehire these fine people she should never have discharged.” I echo that, although she’s already vowed to appeal and keep waging war.
She’s lost friends and respect in the community by virtue of her desperate and foolish attack on her own employees, the public’s right to know, and ethical journalism in general. In my 48 years in newspaper work in Santa Barbara, I’ve never seen one person do so much harm and suffer so many thrown rotten tomatoes in return. This is a battle she started back in the summer of 2006. It’s time to call a cease fire, tend the wounds and make the News-Press a real newspaper again.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.