By John Geluardi
The newspaper guild has filed a complaint against the largest newspaper company in the Bay Area claiming that managers retaliated against pro-union employees by laying them off.
Just weeks after newsroom employees of the Bay Area News Group East Bay (BANG/EB), a cluster of MediaNews publications, voted to unionize, Publisher John Armstrong and Executive Editor Kevin Keane announced that 29 employees would be laid off due to declining revenues.
The Northern California Media Workers Guild does not dispute the financial need for the layoffs, but claims that specific workers were targeted including award winning social services reporter Sara Steffens (pictured), who was a leader in the union campaign.
“By our count at least 20 of the 29 were strong union supporters, and none were strong union opponents,” says guild representative Carl Hall. “It doesn’t seem to make business sense by any definition. Sara was one of their best reporters and she did nothing wrong.”
BANG/EB's attorney Marshell Anstandig denied that Steffens or any other newsroom employees were targeted because of their support for the union. "He can say what he wants, but it's incorrect," Anstandig says. "I don't know if we would have known who the strong union supporters were, it's a secret ballot and would have been wrong for us to find out how people voted."
Anstandig says the entire newspaper industry is suffering financially and that tough decisions are being made about which beats will be cut. He also pointed out that union leaders Karl Fischer and Josh Richman retained their positions in the most recent round of layoffs.
The guild filed the complaint at the Oakland Office of the National Labor Relations Board Tuesday morning. The complaint makes three allegations against that BANG/NB. One is retaliation against pro-union employees by laying them off, the second is illegally discontinuing an established merit pay system and the last is soliciting the laid off employees to waive certain rights before received their severance pay.
Andtandig says he is not aware of the specifics in any of the allegations but will respond to them during the NRLB investigation. "We've done anything illegal inappropriate or wrong," he says.
Steffens, who was elected chair of the guild’s new bargaining unit, said the layoff list appears to be designed to weaken the new union.
"I think they wanted me out of the newsroom," Steffens said. "They wanted to keep me from continuing to engage co-workers as we push for our first contract and they hoped this would send a message to scare people away from further union activity. But they made a big mistake -- so far it's only made our newsroom understand why it's important to have a contract to protect us."