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Justice Crawls, Fired Reporters Wait

On the Beat


Waiting Game: For nine months now, illegally fired Santa Barbara News-Press reporters have waited in vain for a federal appeals court ruling that could put them back to work.

Now, according to a story posted today on the Teamsters Union’s Web site, it turns out that the reason this nine-month baby hasn’t been delivered is that the federal appeals court judges here in California are waiting for politicians in Washington, D.C. to act.

Barney Brantingham

Sen. John McCain, loser to Barack Obama, is apparently the Dr. No who’s barring the door to the delivery room. (Even a single senator has enough clout in D.C. to do that.)

The Teamsters Web site article, written by former News-Press reporter Dawn Hobbs, updates the story of what has happened since, two years ago, a judge ruled that Hobbs and seven other reporters were illegally fired nearly three years ago by Wendy McCaw, the News-Press‘s multi-millionaire owner. But the reporters are still unable to go back to work due to N-P appeals, a toothless federal labor law, a reluctant appeals court - and, now, Sen. McCain.

Until someone gives, my fellow journalists (I quit as a News-Press columnist on July 6, 2006, and wasn’t part of the unionization effort) will remain victims of this runaround.

To oversimplify a complicated issue: After the National Labor Relations Board administrative judge ruled, the News-Press appealed, as it has every time the NLRB ruled that McCaw has violated labor law. The appeal went to the fivemember NLRB board, but three of them soon quit, Hobbs reported. And so it’s remained, three short and stymied.

According to Hobbs, a Senate committee in October okay’d Obama’s three new NLRB appointees, but McCain blackballed one of them, Craig Becker, associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO and SEIU unions. That, Hobbs said, was because of Becker’s backing of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act’s provision easing union sign-up hurdles.

While waiting for the full board to act, the NLRB staff asked a federal judge in L.A. to order the reporters immediately reinstated. Instead, the judge stunned the reporters, NLRB, and the Teamsters, with whom the News-Press newsroom affiliated, by ruling that this would have violated McCaw’s First Amendment rights.

Shocked, the NLRB staff appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is generally considered the nation’s most liberal court, and which has jurisdiction in the West. That was nine months ago. According to Hobbs, the justices have been waiting for the NLRB board to resolve the hot potato issue on its own.

What’s at stake, according to some legal observers, is not just the fate of the eight, but of unionization of any newsroom. If it can be argued, as the News-Press has, that reporters are trying to grab control of news coverage and thereby violating the owner’s First Amendment rights, it might be impossible for any unionization effort to withstand legal challenge.

The News-Press reporters have strenuously denied any such motive and denounced it as a red herring. But the paper’s attorneys have found it a potent argument.

In the meantime, contract negotiations between management and the employees have been fruitless. Fired senior reporter Melinda Burns, a 21-year employee, said in Hobbs’s story: “We never could have imagined it would take this long.” Ira Gottlieb, Teamster attorney, was quoted as saying, “The law has failed these reporters.”

There appear to be two ways to end the logjam: President Obama can withdraw Becker’s appointment and find someone more acceptable to McCain, or the Ninth Circuit can get off the dime and rule.

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Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns as well as a Thursday print column.

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