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Union Says Paper Won't Practice What It Preaches

Publisher of pro-labor LA Weekly says it 'wouldn't be democratic' for ad staff to organize without a vote

September 25, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bitter dispute over unionizing the LA Weekly's advertising department has deeply divided journalists and managers at the traditionally pro-labor paper, leading some reporters there to question the state of alternative journalism itself.

Since 1989, the Weekly's 50-odd editorial employees have been members of the International Assn. of Mahinists and Aerospace Workers, a union the paper's original organizers chose because they regarded the Newspaper Guild as insufficiently assertive. Last May, members of the paper's advertising staff--concerned about escalating sales targets, post-Sept. 11 layoffs and other job security issues--petitioned to join their colleagues' local.

Given the Weekly's unwavering editorial stance as a reportorial champion and unapologetic political ally of organized labor, employees were stunned when the paper's recently appointed publisher, Beth Sestanovich, and her aides deployed every means at their disposal to try to defeat the organizing campaign.

As a consequence, this Friday's representational election is deemed too close to call.

"This began as an ugly situation and has gotten increasingly that way," said writer Erin Aubry Kap- lan, who is president of the Weekly's union local. "I assumed--naively, I now realize--that the Weekly's management would never oppose union organizing. However, they're truly fighting us tooth and nail. It has been very disillusioning to people who assume the Weekly stands for the rights of working men and women."

But Sestanovich said, "We believe that when you look at the highly individual and entrepreneurial work of advertising salespeople, union representation just isn't in the interest of those employees. We coexist with our existing union without friction, and I know that it has surprised many of its members that we would contest extension of their union. But I feel strongly that every employee has a right to make a free and informed choice about this."

David Schneiderman, president of New York-based Village Voice Media, which owns the Weekly and five other so-called alternative publications, did not return calls seeking comment.

Though labor-management relations at the Weekly have heretofore been amiable, the recent situations at other Village Voice Media properties have been different. Earlier this year, the Voice came within 24 hours of a strike, and a contentious organizing effort was defeated at the chain's Cleveland Free Times. (For the record, the Los Angeles Times has no unionized employees and, for more than 100 years, has strenuously resisted any attempt at organization.)

The Weekly, however, regards itself as Los Angeles' "progressive bible." For many years, its labor reporting was the local gold standard, and its leading political commentator--the indispensable Harold Meyerson--played a leading role in chronicling the rise of organized labor in Los Angeles and, particularly, its contribution to Latinos' social and political progress.

So it came as a shock when Weekly managers forced a representational election by rejecting card check organizing, the process by which a union is recognized if the majority of a bargaining unit's members sign membership cards. Editorially, the Weekly is one of the nation's strongest proponents of card check organizing.

Sestanovich said that she "insisted that there be an election because it wouldn't be democratic or fair for me to assume unilaterally that everyone in a bargaining unit wants to join the union. I think each person should get the facts and decide according to their conscience. I know that disappoints some people around here. But while our editorial policy is pro-union, it also is pro-democracy. Sometimes I think some people would say that our editorial policy is anti-business. But I have no intention of interfering with what our editorial employees write, even though we, too, are a business."

Sestanovich twice increased the size of the bargaining unit to widen the pool of potential voters to 29. Employees were instructed to attend mandatory meetings where--according to documents reviewed by The Times--they were told that voting for the union would imperil their existing pay and benefits.

In a note provided to The Times, Sestanovich told an advertising employee who had requested a salary discussion that she was legally precluded from talking about the issue until after the election. "If the union becomes your collective bargaining representative, neither the LA Weekly nor I will be in position to negotiate individually with you about your compensation...." the publisher wrote. " ... Assuming that the union isn't voted in, we can sit down promptly afterward and be in a position to discuss directly with you the status of your compensation."

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