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Close Vote Reveals Wide Gap on LA Weekly's Labor Issues

October 02, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The LA Weekly's advertising and promotional employees have voted not to unionize, but months of contention leading up to Friday's balloting appear to have left a residue of discord and disillusion at the city's leading alternative newspaper.

The question was decided by a two-vote margin: 15 eligible employees cast ballots against joining Local 201 of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which already represents the paper's journalists and other editorial employees; 13 voters supported expanded unionization at the Weekly, which is a major profit center in the national chain of alternative papers owned by New York-based Village Voice Media.

Under federal law, the organizing effort cannot be formally renewed for one year.

"Obviously, it was a very close vote," said Beth Sestanovich, the Weekly's publisher. "I have to deal with the fact that almost as many of our advertising and promotional people wanted the union as didn't. We took the position that there were good solid business reasons not to unionize the advertising side, and we stand by our views on that. But clearly, there are issues we need to resolve with those who want the union, and my office is open to address them."

Nevertheless, Sestanovich said, she believes the union's organizing campaign was misleading and divisive. "It became unnecessarily personal," she said. "At the beginning there were union accusations that management was breaking the law. That softened to almost breaking the law and, then, to could be breaking the law. From start to finish, all of it was unfair and untrue.

"I found it to be a disillusioning experience in many ways," the publisher said. "Just because this newspaper is editorially pro-union doesn't mean everybody here should be a union member. But it's over and I'm happy to move on to the next thing. It's time for others here to decide whether they are too."

Some staff members already seem to have made that decision. "Management invested a lot of resources in this campaign and threw everything they had at us in order to defeat our union," said staff writer Erin Aubry Kaplan, president of the Weekly's Local 201. "We believe there were improprieties, including management coercion of individual voters at the last moment, though we probably won't be able to do anything about it.

"Worse from our standpoint is that management used this campaign to permanently demonize the unionized half of the Weekly's staff. That's certainly altered our perception of our managers. We're all doing a lot of soul-searching right now."

Staff writer Howard Blume, the local's vice president, is similarly troubled. "The risk here is that alternative journalism becomes little more than just an alternative way to make big bucks and not an alternative way of doing business," he said.

"When we cover the news, we ask our readers to look at businesses holistically, that is, we tell our readers that it's not enough to judge a corporation like Nike solely on its ability to make acceptable shoes or UNOCAL on its effectiveness at drilling for oil. We say that it also matters how a company goes about its business--how well it safeguards the environment or treats its workers. Well, if that same standard were applied to our company today, the verdict would be troubling."

Kaplan also appeared to reject Sestanovich's overture. "I'm not interested in healing, because it just sounds like a cover-up," she said. "I'm interested in the issues, and they are not resolved. This isn't going to die. This campaign was a defining moment for us because it showed people here in their true light as nothing has before. We assumed the paper stood for certain things, and it turns out not all of it does."

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More Hitchens Fallout

Christopher Hitchens' abrupt resignation last week as the Nation's first Washington-based correspondent since I.F. Stone, continues to excite comment on both sides of the Atlantic.

Guardian media writer Oliver Burkeman writes in the paper's Monday edition that Hitchens' resignation signals more than personal disenchantment:

"It can sometimes seem as if being disagreed with is as vital as oxygen" to Hitchens, Burkeman writes. Still, "something significant is clearly afoot, when a self-styled 'contrarian' abruptly resigns from a magazine which has published him for two decades on the grounds that--well, on the grounds that everyone else disagrees with him."

Since Sept. 11, the Guardian writer notes, Hitchens has "been rapidly distancing himself from the left-wing establishment, vociferously attacking extremist 'Islamo-fascism'--a phrase he coined--and those on the left he accuses of being its apologists."

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