In a big win for the Santa Barbara News-Press, a federal judge this month denied immediate reinstatement for a group of eight reporters fired by the daily newspaper. The judge said that reinstating the reporters would infringe on the First Amendment rights of the News-Press to protect itself against union efforts. The win for the newspaper is perhaps its biggest court victory to date in its ongoing struggle against the Teamsters Union.
This decision affects only the injunction request filed in March 2008 by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It does not overturn another judge’s finding that the News-Press violated federal labor laws in firing the eight reporters. That December 2007 decision was immediately appealed by the News-Press‘ attorneys, which led the NLRB to file this injunction, in hopes of getting the reporters their jobs back soon rather than having to remain unemployed during the potentially lengthy appeals process. That attempt was denied in this May 22 decision by Judge Stephen Wilson.
In his 33-page decision, Wilson agreed with the newspaper’s central argument, that union activity “committed by the employees in this case was in large part directed at limiting [News-Press management’s] exercise of its editorial discretion.” Because of this, Wilson wrote, the “proposed injunction in its entirety fringes” on the paper’s right to maintain its editorial discretion. “The proposed injunction,” continued the judge, “would prove a fairly severe hardship on [the newspaper] balancing the hardship that would be visited on the Union and discharged employees were equitable relief denied.” He also noted in his opinion that rehiring the reporters would force newspaper management to release current reporters and reorganize the department.
Melinda Burns, Anna Davidson, Tom Schultz, Dawn Hobbs, Melissa Evans, John Zant, Barney McManigal, and Rob Kuznia – some of whom had been at the paper for decades – all were fired within several weeks of one another. According to paper management, two of the employees had been fired because of biased reporting, while the other six were terminated for hanging a banner from a highway pedestrian bridge which read, “Cancel Your Newspaper Today!” The board’s position had been that the eight weren’t fired because of their actions, but for being supporters of the union. Newsroom employees at the paper had been attempting to join the Teamsters Union since July 2006, when several top editors left because of owner Wendy McCaw’s management of the paper. Since then, more than 80 employees have been fired, laid off, or quit, and the newspaper has experienced one of the most precipitous readership declines in recent history. Meanwhile, the paper’s management and the unionized newsroom employees continue to hash it out at the bargaining table.
On December 26, 2007, Judge William G. Kocol opined that the eight had been wrongly terminated, and ordered that they be reinstated with back pay. News-Press management elected to appeal that decision, but the NLRB filed an action against the paper in the Central District of the United States District Court in hopes of having the Kocol’s order enforced immediately while the appeal process played out. The two sides met in court in March to argue their case in front of Wilson. Wilson, in his opinion, decided that Kocol “failed to adequately consider” First Amendment issues.
Ira Gottlieb, a Los Angeles attorney representing the employees, said in an e-mail he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling, which he believed was “incorrectly decided.” Gottlieb explained, “We hope that the NLRB will appeal the decision, and with a successful appeal, restore the deference to [Kocol’s] decisions and respect for the protection of [National Labor Relations Act] rights to organize that the Act:was enacted to protect, and restore the proper balance between First Amendment rights, which are not properly utilized as a sword to injure workers who are trying to gain a voice in the workplace, and the organizational rights of employees. We remain optimistic that the NLRB will uphold Judge Kocol’s decision, and that any court considering that decision will also uphold it in its entirety.”
News-Press attorney Barry Cappello issued a written statement. “As the News-Press has always asserted, a careful review of the constitutional issues would result in upholding all the actions it had taken,” Cappello said. “The union position has been completely discredited. Some apologies are in order for the hysterical remarks of various media pundits.”
The appeal of Judge Kocol’s December decision still sits in the hands of the full NLRB, which will render its decision on the News-Press appeal.