By John Geluardi
Last July, just weeks after organizers established the first newspaper union to be formed in the United States in over 40 years, managers laid off 29 newsroom employees, 21 of whom happened to be involved in union organizing efforts. The three named in the complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are social services reporter Sara Steffens, who lead the organizing effort, religion reporter Rebecca Rosen Lum and sports writer Geoff Lepper.
The Northern California Media Workers Guild, which is representing the three reporters, claims management kept tabs on union organizers and then targeted them for layoffs after the new union was approved by a 104 to 92 vote in June. The new union, once a contract is negotiated, will represent newsroom employees who work for a cluster of Media News Group papers called the Bay Area News Group-East Bay, which includes all of the major dailies in the East Bay including the Contra Costa Times, the Oakland Tribune and Tri-Valley Herald.
"(Media News) violated federal law during the organizing drive by using surveillance and interrogation to find out which employees were sympathetic to the union," reads a press release on the guild's Web site.
The Media News Group has a long history of hostility to organized labor and its chief executive officer, Dean Singleton, has been known for publishing above-the-fold, anti-union rants in his flagship newspaper the Denver Post. Nonetheless the NLRB dismissed the guild's complaint because the guild was unable to demonstrate that MediaNews harbored animus toward the union organizers.
Steffens says she is hopeful the appeal will be successful. "I feel our chances are good and that the board is going to take a fresh look at the evidence," Steffens says. "It's a really hard thing to prove, even if it's obvious to everybody."
At the time of the layoffs last July, BANG-EB Executive Editor Kevin Keane claimed the reporters were let go for purely financial reasons and that it was only coincidence that more than two thirds of those laid off were involved in forming the union.
Steffens admits it is an extremely tough time for the newspaper industry, but says it is important employees still stand up for themselves.
"What's really important is that people don't come away with the impression this is what happens when you organize a union," she says. "I think it made some people fearful and that's probably what the company intended."