News-Press, Union Negotiations Crawling Along

Slow and Unsteady

Nashville labor attorney Michael Zinser, a union-busting lawyer who represents papers in battles against newspapers around the country, is one of the main negotiators for the <em>Santa Barbara News-Press</em>.
Paul Wellman

Twenty months after turmoil at her paper reached a boiling point with the departure of several top newsroom staff, Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw continues to sit not far from the center of attention in town. A documentary-Citizen McCaw-based on the paper’s downfall is expected to premiere to a near-capacity crowd at the Arlington Theatre Friday. And both the Teamsters Union and the paper have recently filed more unfair labor practice charges against each other, continuing a seemingly endless rally of legal volleys and returns.

But behind the scenes is a four-month-old battle between McCaw’s attorneys and representatives of the Teamsters Union that shows no signs of coming to a conclusion anytime soon. In September 2006, newsroom employees voted overwhelmingly to join the union. After the newspaper appealed that vote, a federal judge sided with the employees and ordered newspaper management to begin negotiating with newsroom representatives. Since then, however, the two sides have met for a total of eight-and-a-half days and remain polarized on almost every key issue, union negotiators said.

In a March 3 letter, union lead negotiator Nick Caruso explained to News-Press newsroom employees that no progress was made during the most recent meeting, which occurred over three days at the end of February. In fact, the News-Press-represented by associate editor Scott Steepleton, Nashville labor and media law attorney Michael Zinser, and Dugan Kelley from the firm of News-Press lead counsel Barry Cappello offered not one proposal or counterproposal the entire time, union representatives said. “Their only interest seems to be maintaining total control,” Caruso explained. Cappello, through his assistant, said he would have no comment on the contract negotiations.

The union has no qualms with many sections of the paper’s employee handbook, and has agreed on several policies, such as the paper’s stance on drug-testing and equal employment opportunity, for example. Beyond that, agreements end. “Slow is a bit of an understatement,” Caruso said in reference to the rate of progress. “I expected more.”

One of the union’s big concerns involves the paper’s current employment-at-will policy, which, as indicated in the paper’s employment handbook, means management can terminate or discipline “with or without cause.” “The Union maintains that the Employer must show Just Cause for Discipline and Discharge,” Caruso wrote in his letter.

The union also has a beef with the chain of command through which grievances are appealed. Currently, disputes on contract interpretation are appealed to the publisher, but the union would like to see an impartial arbitrator handle the case. The union is proposing a five percent wage increase to the minimum rates for employment, with five percent increases for each ratification agreed upon in the future. The News-Press, meanwhile, is reportedly looking to keep wages as is. And these skirmishes remain far from the heart of the matter: policies on the ambiguity that is journalistic ethics.

In December, union negotiators suggested that, in addition to lawyers, a representative with knowledge of company policies and benefit programs be present at the meetings to make them run smoothly and to offer answers to questions. The company, which had recently cancelled the December meeting as a result of an ailing Steepleton, explained that Steepleton was the man critical to answering questions. But at subsequent meetings, Steepleton added little to nothing to the conversation, Caruso said. “They decide who will represent management, but we have a right to the answers as well,” he said. During the most recent meeting, union representatives suggested a mediator help the negotiations, but News-Press representatives have decided such mediation is premature.

Zinser was out of his office Tuesday and did not respond to messages.


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