Former News-Press Life section editor Andrea Huebner took the stand on Friday, September 7 as the National Labor Relations Board hearing continued over the daily paper’s alleged interference with its employees’ union organizing.
Attorneys for both the NLRB and the defense quizzed Huebner about the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of Starshine Roshell‘s humorous lifestyle column – which now runs in the Santa Barbara Independent. The NLRB contends that the column was cancelled in retaliation for Roshell’s union activism, but the defense maintains that it was axed as part of a new “business plan,” which sought to eliminate the perception among News-Press readers that the paper’s reporting was biased. In order to promulgate a more objective profile for her paper, according to the defense, publisher Wendy McCaw had decided to cancel all columns written by staff members. (In addition to the column, Roshell also wrote features and served as deputy editor of the Life section.)
Under questioning by NLRB attorneys, Huebner recounted that in mid-August, 2006 she received notice of staff reassignments – including the cancellation of Roshell’s column. Huebner approached Editor Scott Steepleton, to warn him that canceling Roshell’s column could “have the appearance” of illegal retaliatory action against Roshell for her union activism. Steepleton then declined to pass the message to his superiors, so the following day Huebner broke the news to Roshell, who immediately rejected as pretext the rationale that the paper was trying to achieve a more objective profile, according to Huebner. Roshell assumed the real reason was anti-union retaliation – which is also the NLRB’s position. Roshell was the only staff columnist cancelled under the new policy, Huebner testified, remaining staff columnists at that point being sports writers John Zant and Mark Patton, and business writer Maria Zate.
The defense elicited from Huebner the fact that eight other columns had previously been cancelled, including Editor Scott Steepleton’s. The defense seized on this fact to prove that Huebner was biased in favor of Roshell to such an extent that her credibility was compromised. The defense then probed Huebner as to why had she not objected to the other cancellations. Huebner replied that because they were freelancers, not employees, there was no appearance of retaliation for union organizing.
A key piece of evidence was an email from Roshell to News-Press management in which Roshell asked permission to seek other venues for her column on a freelance basis, saying she understood that management was canceling her “highly popular” column to eliminate the appearance of bias, not because management wished “to stifle my personal voice or creativity.”
This email, declared defense attorney Dugan Kelly, “undercuts the government’s entire case on this witness [Huebner].” It indicated, according to Kelly, Roshell’s acceptance of the cancellation for what it was – not punishment to discourage union activism, but management’s exercise of its prerogative to change its business plan. However, under further questioning by NLRB attorney Brian Gee, Huebner said of Roshell’s email, “It’s sarcasm.”
Huebner was fired on Septmber 12, 2006 after eight years of employment at the News-Press. The reason given for her termination was that she allowed a health column by Dr. Michael Seabaugh to run which contained references to another News-Press columnist, Dr. Laura Schlessinger. In the column, Seabaugh – whose “Healthspan” column now runs in the Independent – chided Dr. Laura for her statements opposing tolerance of diversity. He wrote that he was in favor of diversity. Huebner testified that she was told she was “not on the same page as management.”
Following Huebner’s testimony, Dawn Hobbs, former crime and courts reporter for the Santa Barbara News-Press, bantered with Ampersand Publishing attorney Barry Cappello as she took the stand on Friday. Hobbs was fired from the News-Press for what her superiors called disloyalty, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) calls legally protected union activity.
Under questioning by NLRB attorneys, Hobbs presented her accomplishments as a reporter, which include 10 state and national awards, two of them for stories in the Los Angeles Times, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination from former News-Press managing editor Jerry Roberts, whose resignation helped spark the union organizing effort. Quick and vigilant by nature, tense and driven, Hobbs engaged in a bit of braggadocio, saying that she was sometimes able to piece together the circumstances of a crime sooner than entire teams of detectives. Hobbs also presented her bona fides as one of the leading union organizers at the News-Press, alongside 28-year-veteran Melinda Burns.
Hobbs was fired from the paper in the aftermath of a February, 2007 demonstration in which she and five other News-Press reporters, plus the recently fired Burns, stood on the Anapamu Street footbridge displaying signs for freeway motorists passing underneath, most conspicuously a large banner reading, “Cancel your newspaper today.” As evidence that the demonstration was protected union activity, and not a fatal misstep on the part of the Teamsters’ union counsel, Hobbs cited several previous rallies and demonstrations where the union activists had displayed identical signage. The difference this time was that Hobbs and the other five reporters were called one by one into a conference room three days later and asked by News-Press attorney Dugan Kelley if they had participated. Answering yes, they were told that this was disloyalty up with which the News-Press would not put, and handed their walking papers. “I said, ‘This is union related, federally protected activity,'” Hobbs testified. “He said, ‘No, it isn’t.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ He said, ‘No, it isn’t, and it won’t be tolerated.'”
Using Hobbs’s testimony, NLRB lawyers continued their quest to show that reporters Anna Davison and Melinda Burns were fired for union activism. Fired before the footbridge demonstration, they were told the reason was because their reporting, on topics ranging from street trees to environmental regulations, was slanted to support their own opinions. When NLRB attorney Steve Wyllie asked Hobbs whether Steepleton had held trainings or workshops on eliminating bias from reportage, as Steepleton claimed under oath, the defense erupted into objections. Cappello complained that the NLRB asked every one of their witnesses that same question. The NLRB lawyers responded that they would stop asking the question if the defense was willing to stipulate that there were no such workshops. Cappello was not willing to so stipulate, and Judge William Kocol ruled that the question was admissible. “No,” Hobbs answered.
That email become the focus of a dust-up between Cappello and Hobbs as her testimony ended on Friday. Throughout the trial, Cappello has repeatedly objected that the union did not provide documents subpoenaed by the defense. The NLRB has consistently responded that the subpoenaed documents are part of News-Press records and therefore already in the defense’s possession. The judge has overruled Cappello’s objections while promising a separate hearing on subpoena issues. However, when the NLRB on Friday introduced the email exchange between Hobbs and Schultz, including Hobbs’s response, Cappello went ballistic. “This wasn’t a document we even had,” he practically shouted, and insisted on challenging Hobbs on the spot. Hobbs conceded that she had provided union attorney Ira Gottlieb with the correspondence only a day before she was scheduled to testify. How, Cappello demanded of Hobbs, could she possibly have failed to locate this email on her computer at the time it was subpoenaed? “I guess I looked the wrong way,” Hobbs responded. Perhaps alluding to Hobbs’ boast at the beginning of her testimony, about solving crimes faster than law enforcement, Cappello retorted, “Sort of like the way the police conduct their searches?” Hobbs smiled sardonically.
Hobbs is scheduled to return to the stand on Monday, September 10.