It’s been a long time coming. For the first time, a federal appellate court has confirmed that Wendy McCaw, the multimillionaire owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, is a lawbreaker.
On March 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., unanimously upheld the National Labor Relations Board’s findings that McCaw repeatedly broke federal labor law after the News-Press newsroom joined the Teamsters in the fall of 2006.
A panel of three appellate court judges affirmed that McCaw fired a columnist and a sports reporter in violation of labor law, encouraged newsroom employees not to cooperate with federal labor investigators, stopped granting annual merit raises in retaliation for union support in the newsroom, ordered employees not to talk to the union about their working conditions, hired temporary workers to undercut union support, and engaged in bad-faith bargaining with the Teamsters for five years.
The News-Press Mess (or Meltdown), as it is known, began in the summer of 2006, when five newsroom editors resigned. They alleged that McCaw was interfering in news reporting to curry favor with her celebrity friends, in part by punishing journalists who were merely following established practices at the paper. We knew we needed a union contract to guarantee that McCaw would allow us to report the news without intimidation, and we voted overwhelmingly for the Teamsters to represent us.
That’s when McCaw began her reign of terror, eventually firing 11 journalists in all, or nearly one out of three who voted for the union. More than 10 years after that vote, she still refuses to negotiate a contract.
In 2012, the D.C. appeals court sided with McCaw and ruled that she had the right to fire eight reporters, including both of us. We were leading a boycott campaign in support of a contract, and McCaw alleged, bizarrely, that we were trying to control the content of the paper in violation of her First Amendment rights. In this latest case, however, the judges threw out that bogus argument.
McCaw has hired at least 10 law firms since 2006 to avoid signing a union contract, and she may challenge the March 3 ruling. But in the end, the courts will likely order her to reimburse the Teamsters for tens of thousands of dollars that they were forced to spend on fruitless negotiations between 2007 and 2012, while the News-Press shamelessly refused to bargain for a fair employment contract.
We have bad memories of the so-called negotiations with the News-Press. It was quickly apparent that McCaw’s sleazy union-busting lawyers and yes-men were there only to stonewall and make a mockery of us. Our former colleagues were fleeing the paper because of the hostile atmosphere, and we kept having to recruit new bargaining committee members. One of them was Dennis Moran, a dedicated sports reporter who was later fired, wrongfully, for allegedly lying, after his bosses concocted a scheme to get rid of him.
The court has now affirmed that Moran’s firing was illegal. If the decision stands, he will be eligible for back pay, as will Richard Mineards, a former News-Press columnist. A number of past and present newsroom employees also will be eligible for annual raises that McCaw illegally stopped granting after the union vote.
Through bitter experience, we’ve learned that federal labor law is weak and unevenly enforced. We’ve seen how a wealthy employer, aided by conservative judges, can delay justice for more than a decade. Another Teamster case is still pending against McCaw, alleging that she illegally fired a photographer who supported the union, unilaterally suspended contract talks in 2013 and reduced health care benefits without negotiating with the union.
It came as no surprise to us when McCaw endorsed Trump during the election campaign last year. They’re both multimillionaires, they both hate journalists, and neither of them has any regard for working people. We are grateful that the community-wide boycott of the News-Press continues to this day. We are grateful, too, that the Teamsters have never wavered in their efforts to bring McCaw to justice.
Ten years ago, we fell victim to a rich and unprincipled publisher, and Santa Barbara lost a respected institution. It was a harbinger of worse things to come. Trump has declared war on journalists everywhere as “enemies of the people,” and we are awash in fake news coming from the highest echelons of power. Our local skirmish is now part of a national movement for workers’ rights. This is a fight we can’t afford to lose.
Melinda Burns was a senior writer at the News-Press, where she worked for 21 years. She is a freelance journalist now. Dawn Hobbs, a News-Press reporter for nine years, is freelancing and teaching journalism at the university level.