In the unprecedented 12-year battle over workers’ rights at the Santa Barbara News-Press, we can declare a small but crucial victory.
The National Labor Relations Board announced this month that it will seek $2.2 million in “monetary relief” for dozens of newsroom employees who were mistreated by Wendy McCaw, the multimillionaire owner and co-publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press.
It’s about time.
The board wants McCaw to pay $936,000 to “make employees whole” because she illegally hired nonunion temporary workers and freelancers. She also would owe $705,000 in back pay for two employees whom she illegally laid off or fired, $222,000 for employees whose merit pay she illegally suspended, and $186,000 to reimburse employees for any tax increases linked to these one-time paybacks.
In addition, the board wants McCaw to reimburse the Teamsters for $183,000 in expenses that the union incurred during its fruitless contract negotiations with the News-Press from 2007 to 2012, while seeking a fair contract for newsroom employees.
The names of past and present newsroom beneficiaries have not been made public. The board’s proposal does nothing for eight of us News-Press reporters who were unfairly fired by McCaw soon after September 2006, when the newsroom voted to join the Teamsters. Our careers were derailed; our lives were disrupted. Still, we’re pleased that some current newsroom employees and many of our colleagues who left the paper may be compensated in some measure for what they lost.
On September 25, 2018, the board will hold a hearing in Los Angeles, at which the News-Press may object to the proposed compensation.
The calamity known as the News-Press Mess exploded on the scene in the summer of 2006, making international news. Five top editors and columnist Barney Brantingham resigned on July 5 and 6 that year, alleging that McCaw was interfering in the paper’s newsgathering and news reporting on behalf of her celebrity friends.
A frantic exodus of newsroom professionals and a massive subscribers’ boycott have since reduced the News-Press, once a respected institution, to a paper that people will proudly tell you they wouldn’t think of reading, and fish will indignantly tell you they don’t want to be wrapped in.
Under these circumstances, a $2.2 million nick in McCaw’s vast fortune is not cause for much celebration. As far back as 2006, before McCaw fired the eight of us (one in four newsroom employees who voted for the union), we were fighting for basic job rights and byline protections, and we organized a community-wide boycott to force McCaw to recognize the Teamsters. McCaw falsely claimed we eight were trying to take over the newsroom, in violation of her First Amendment rights as publisher.
Bizarrely, in a taste of things to come, a panel of three federal judges in the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., appointees of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, sided with McCaw.
Faced with another slew of labor law violations, including bad-faith bargaining and illegally suspending merit pay in retaliation for the union vote, McCaw again tried to wrap herself in the First Amendment. But she failed last year on appeal in the same D.C. court.
It is very difficult to prove that an employer is bargaining in bad faith, but this case was a slam dunk. We can personally attest to how insulting it was to sit at the negotiating table and listen to McCaw’s corrupt agents say “no” in a hundred different ways as the hours and months rolled by. They demanded contract terms that were literally worse than no contract at all.
So, for us, it’s sweet: McCaw, who took out full-page ads smearing the Teamsters and hired more than 10 lawyers to try, unsuccessfully, to keep the union out, has been ordered by the labor board to return to the bargaining table. The multimillionaire publisher who hates unions and once editorialized against the minimum wage might actually sign a Teamster contract with a decent pay scale and basic protections for newsroom employees.
A while back, under board orders, one of McCaw’s managers had to stand in front of the newsroom alongside a federal board agent and listen while the agent read aloud the employees’ rights to be represented by the Teamsters and to be free from McCaw’s law-breaking ways.
Finally, looking beyond the present board proposal, McCaw will be required to pay back the share of health-care costs that she illegally forced her newsroom employees to shoulder. The board has found McCaw to be liable for that money; the exact amount is still under review. The law requires employers to negotiate workers’ share of health-care costs with the union that represents them.
Through it all, we’ve learned a bitter truth about American labor law: It’s so weak that a rich anti-union employer can game the system and stave off justice for more than a decade … and counting. We’ve watched with rising alarm, in recent years, as politicians and pundits attack and deride journalists from the highest echelons of American power. Now Supreme Court judges are distorting the First Amendment to undermine labor law. It’s all déjà vu for us.
But we’re glad the courts have finally caught up with our former publisher. We used to picket the News-Press with signs that said, “McCaw, Obey the Law!” — and now she will have to.
For this, we owe a debt of gratitude to the good people of the South Coast who canceled their News-Press subscriptions and never went back, and to the true-blue Teamsters who taught us the real meaning of solidarity. To these “forever” friends, we say: Thank you for never letting us down.
Melinda Burns and Dawn Hobbs worked at the News-Press for 21 and nine years, respectively. They led the newsroom campaign to join the Teamsters in 2006, and the News-Press boycott that followed.