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NLRB Round One

Day One in News-Press Legal Action on Union Vote

Scott Steepleton Takes the Stand Tuesday Morning

Despite the level of anticipation gripping Santa Barbarans over
the fate of their longtime daily newspaper, the courtroom pews were
only halfway filled on Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the U.S.
Bankruptcy Court
on State Street. nlrb.jpg That’s when the Judge William L.
Schmidt
, as the eyes and ears of the National
Labor Relations Board
, began hearing objections from
News-Press management over the newsroom’s 33-6 September
27 vote in favor of joining the Graphic Communications
Conference of the International Brotherhood of
Teamsters
.

One the left side of the room seated before the judge was
David Millstein and Sandra McCandless, who played the lead attorney
role in this proceeding. Next to them was Scott
Steepleton
, the white-haired, stout N-P editor
dressed in crisp white shirt and purple-pink tie who took the
witness stand first.

On the right side was Teamsters attorney Ira Gottlieb and former N-P reporter
Melinda Burns. And after some pre-hearing talk
about whether Teamsters rep Marty Keegan was served a subpoena at his place of
business or at a “house with the barking dogs,” Keegan himself
walked through the doors and took his seat.

Before beginning, the judge reminded the N-P legal team
that although they’ve raised these objections, they can rescind any
or all of them at any time. “Don’t dismiss that as a crazy
thought,” said Schmidt, who was wearing a polka dotted bow tie.
“It’s not the end of the world to sit at the bargaining table and
have discussions that may or may not lead to a collective
bargaining agreement.” He then advised that perhaps the Teamsters
might also consider a similar path and retry the vote, especially
because their margin of victory was so high. Both sides thanked him
for the opportunity, but then trudged forth.

Explaining the hearing, Judge Schmidt explained that the
News-Press management had the burden of proof to show that
their objections did “destroy the laboratory conditions, or at
least impair the laboratory conditions” of the election. McCandless
declined to give an opening argument, merely stating that she did
not believe the laboratory conditions were present.

Ira’s Opening

Gottlieb, however, did give a statement to the effect that this
hearing was “not about due process.” “We’re here because of denial
and delay,” said Gottlieb, citing the overwhelming majority (85
percent) of the newsroom staff in favor of unionization. He then
said that the objections were examples of “frivolity” in that three
of the four had already been reviewed and tossed out by the
National Labor Relations Board as unfair labor practices. (That
does not automatically mean, however, that this judge will rule the
same way.)

The other claim about an anonymous threat posted on the
Blogabarbara website was also a moot point, offered Gottlieb,
because the News-Press management itself later posted the
threat themselves. Regardless, third party threats, Gottlieb
explained, were no longer given much consideration by the NLRB. And
furthermore, the NLRB found about 10 years ago that two bomb
threats were not enough to overturn a union vote that only had 59
percent support.

But at the heart of Gottlieb’s opening was this central notion:
management’s claim that the various Teamster activities influenced
the election is bogus because reporters, as a lot, are not easily
fooled. “They’re trained to check out sources, trained to be
skeptical,” said Gottlieb, explaining that, contrary to
management’s claims, the newsroom staff did not ever think that the
Wendy McCaw and her management team ever endorsed
the union. Gottlieb would later produce anti-union editorials
penned by Wendy McCaw, who was not present, and Travis Armstrong, who was in the courtroom,
wearing a tan coat, dark grey tie, and blue-and-white pinstriped
shirt.

What Does Scott Know?

With that, Scott Steepleton, a nearly seven-year N-P
editor, took the stand. McCandless called Steepleton, who current
newsroom employees claim is the face of much intimidation these
days, in an attempt to show that supervisors were involved in the
union organizing efforts, that the Teamsters were secretly behind
the SavetheNewsPress.com website and subscription cancellation
plans, that the newsroom was intimidating when it marched through
the halls and tried to deliver McCaw a letter, and that the threat
posted on Blogabarbara was indeed threatening.

Steepleton was on vacation when Jerry Roberts resigned and the first wave of
newsroom employees left, but came back to get a promotion to city
editor. He described the newsroom atmosphere as “quite tense,” that
reporters would go from desk to desk “whispering,” and said that
one reporter called him aside and said that “things are going to
happen but don’t take them personal.”

Steepleton spent a good deal of time describing the SavetheNewsPress.com website, and tried to give the
impression that he thought it was run by newsroom employees. But
then he discovered some Teamsters support when he “drilled down”
into the website, which was apparently a ploy by McCandless to show
that the union engaged in misrepresentation. He also recalled
seeing reporter Tom Schultz‘s car with the
News-Press masthead (which the witness called a “logo”)
and a “Save the News-Press” poster. Judge Schmidt, however, said
that the NLRB no longer cared about misrepresentation, so
McCandless claimed that it was more like forgery, and therefore a
different matter. The judge took it under consideration.

To describe the time that newsroom employees marched toward
Wendy McCaw’s office with a letter of demands, Steepleton stood and
stomped his feet loudly. He said that he was scared it was another
“mass resignation” and that he may have to put out the paper
himself. He later said he was also intimidated by what he described
as a “mob” standing at Wendy McCaw’s office door, jiggling her
doorknob, and trying to get in. That march eventually led to
Yolanda Apodaca‘s office, which prompted Gottlieb
to call for Apodaca, who was seated next to Travis Armstrong in the
courtroom wearing a black jacket and black spectacles, to be
sequestered. The judge denied that.

As for Blogabarbara, Steepleton described it as a “local website
that essentially pokes fun at the Santa Barbara
News-Press
.” He saw a copy of the threat that was posted on
the website, which outlined a way to take out much of the
newspaper’s staff. Steepleton said what concerned him first was the
date, September 11, suggesting that it was a connection to
terrorism and that as such the threat should be considered
serious.

Breaktime and Then Some

During a short break, many former and current
News-Press staffers mingled in the main lobby area with
smiles, including Tom Schultz, who was wearing a piece of duct tape
twisted into a ribbon and pinned to his lapel. Meanwhile, the tall
Travis Armstrong, the paper’s editorial page editor whose shift
last summer to a newsroom supervisor triggered much of the
meltdown, talked to attorneys Millstein and McCandless in the
corner. Steepleton emerged from the courtroom and walked straight
to the restroom, without so much as a nod to anyone.

After the break, The Indy was drawn into the mess when
a photocopied page was entered as an exhibit to show that one
supervisor named Dale Myers was involved at a
rally. (He was in a photograph.) Steepleton also testified that
Andrea Huebner, the paper’s former Life editor,
was at a rally too. It was then Gottlieb’s turn for
cross-examination, which lasted until lunch at 12:20 p.m. Gottlieb
went on the offensive against Steepleton, trying to get him
impeached for having been a liar (based on his alleged March 2000
firing from the LA Times for being “dishonest”) and for
having motivations against the employees. Millstein shot up from
his seat to get those charges omitted from the record, but the
judge denied it. McCandless was allowed to go on the record
explaining that just because Gottlieb raises these points don’t
make them true.

Gottlieb spent awhile going through the newspaper management’s
moves leading up to the unionization drive. Included in those
tactics were the hiring of consultants Bob Long and Jim
Anderson
, who advised on how to bust the union, and head
counts of who might vote.

The judge was not impressed with this line of inquiry, because
it showed the obvious strategies employed by any employer in a
similar situation. Noting that what Gottlieb wanted to know was
probably the result of such counting, the judge blurted, “You’d
have to be blind, deaf (which he pronounced “deef”), and dumb not
to find out who was for the union and who was against the union.”
It was an example of the relaxed courtroom atmosphere in this
hearing, where, without a jury watching on, the judge is able to
move questioning along quickly, accept more hearsay and less
foundation that normal, and even advise the lawyers on how to
better ask their questions. In some cases, the judge himself asked
the pertinent questions.

Admitting the Numbers

When finally asked the result of those head counts, Steepleton
said, “Our assessment was that the union would win the election,”
confirming that it would be by “a large percentage.” Though
testimony carried on from there, including an
audience-laughter-fueling claim by Steepleton that he doesn’t have
anything to do with the editorials and that he doesn’t regularly
read them, this admission by Steepleton seems to be crucial to all
of the objections levied by the newspaper’s management.

If Steepleton and the rest of the N-P management admit
that “a large percentage” of the newsroom staff were going to vote
in favor of joining a union, doesn’t that mean that none of their
objections have merit? Given that Steepleton admitted more than 25
people were marching in the office, it seems that the
News-Press is admitting that the pro-union vote was
inevitable. Doesn’t that make this all a waste of time?

In any case, it’s time to head back to the courtroom right now.
It’s about 2:30 p.m., and court’s been going on for more than an
hour now, likely with either Travis Armstrong or Yolanda Apodaca on
the stand. Check back later for another report.

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