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Santa Barbara paper illegally fired union backers, judge says

January 01, 2008|Martin Zimmerman and Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writers

A judge has ruled that the Santa Barbara News-Press committed flagrant violations of federal labor laws when it fired eight journalists for engaging in union activities, and he ordered that the newspaper rehire the former employees.

Evidence presented during a 17-day hearing last summer shows "the News-Press' widespread, general disregard for the fundamental rights of the employees," Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol wrote in a 75-page decision issued last week.

Kocol ruled in a case brought by the National Labor Relations Board, which accused the paper of retaliating against employees who planned to join a division of the Teamsters union.

"This decision really is all-encompassing; it's everything we wanted it to be," said Melinda Burns, who worked for the paper for 21 years before she was fired in October 2006.

"It's a clean sweep," union attorney Ira L. Gottlieb said.

Attorneys for the News-Press and its publisher, Wendy McCaw, said Monday that they were "extremely disappointed" with the ruling and that the paper "will exhaust all possible appeals and fully expects to achieve justice through that appellate process. The matter as a whole is in its infancy." McCaw referred requests for an interview to her attorneys.

Nonetheless, some observers who have objected to McCaw's handling of the newspaper she bought in 2000 were quick to applaud Kocol's ruling.

"I don't know whether there's going to be an immediate practical effect, but the psychic impact of this and the symbolic impact is enormous," said Lou Cannon, the longtime Washington political columnist and Reagan biographer who lives outside Santa Barbara.

"You had all of these people who were really fine journalists and they were just thrown out in the street for no reason."

The dispute between McCaw and her newsroom, which has drawn attention in an industry sensitive to meddling by owners, burst into public view in July 2006 when five top editors resigned to protest what they said was McCaw's censorship of local news.

Dozens of other staff members have since left the paper, which has seen its average daily circulation fall to 33,755 as of Sept. 30, down more than 10% since March.

During the hearing before Kocol in Santa Barbara, News-Press managers testified that Burns and fellow reporter Anna Davison -- who was dismissed in early 2007 -- were fired for writing biased stories. Six other newsroom staffers -- dismissed in February 2007 after hanging a banner from a pedestrian bridge over the 101 Freeway that read: "Cancel Your Newspaper Today!" -- showed "disloyalty against the company," an executive testified.

Kocol, however, ruled that all eight were illegally fired for engaging in union activity. He also ruled that Davison and three colleagues were given poor performance reviews and denied bonuses for the same reason, and that Starshine Roshell's column was dropped because she supported the union.

Kocol also found that the paper had spied on employees' union activities, forced workers to remove buttons reading "McCaw Obey the Law" and fired a supervisor because he refused to go along with management's actions.

In addition to telling the News-Press to rehire the fired journalists and pay them back wages, Kocol ordered new evaluations for the four union supporters.

Burns, who has had to rent out her home and move in with a friend to make ends meet, said she wanted to return to work as soon as possible. She and her colleagues were fighting for a contract that would protect their work and their rights from McCaw.

"I think that the only thing we have is to try to turn this thing around and put out a good newspaper," she said.

Veteran sports reporter John Zant, one of the six reporters who held up signs urging subscription cancellations, said that although he welcomed the decision, he expected management to draw out the battle.

"I'm not counting my chickens on going back because of potential appeals and all that," said Zant, who wrote for the paper for 38 years.

"It's certainly a good step in the right direction," he said. "It's now on the public record how the newspaper's owners have treated the employees."

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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