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Newspaper publisher retaliated against former reporters, board rules

August 12, 2011 |  6:30 am

Santa Barbara News-Press publisher retaliated against employees
Five years after Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw was accused of improperly meddling in the newspaper's coverage and firing employees after they began to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the journalists, saying they were the victims of an "extensive campaign of retaliatory conduct" by the publisher.

In the unanimous decision released Thursday, the three-person board rejected arguments that the employees' actions weren't protected because they dealt with content instead of wages or benefits. It also denied claims from Ampersand Publishing LLC – the company McCaw owns with co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger – that any order in favor of the employees would interfere with the publisher's 1st Amendment right to control the editorial content of the paper.

The 55-page ruling is the latest in a years-long battle between the paper's publisher and employees that began when 15 editors, reporters and photographers resigned during the summer of 2006. They were protesting what they said were improper attempts by McCaw to influence the news-gathering process. Remaining editorial employees decided to bring in a union, and launched a campaign asking readers to cancel subscriptions if the publisher did not meet employee demands.

In August of that year, an election petition was filed and employees voted in favor of the union.

According to the board's decision, McCaw then committed a number of violations, including threatening and repeatedly interrogating union supporters, and giving low performance evaluations to four people engaging in union activity. Eight people were also fired from the paper for engaging in union activity.

"The judge found that the respondent engaged in an extensive campaign of retaliatory conduct against employees because they exercised their rights to seek union representation and to join together for their mutual aid or protection," the decision stated. "Our order remedies that unlawful conduct."

A cease-and-desist order was handed down to the News-Press, and the board also mandated "certain affirmative action designed to effectuate the policies of the act." The publisher was ordered to offer reinstatement to the eight fired employees and retract the poor performance evaluations, as well as rescind suspension notices it sent to 11 employees and award "all discriminated employees" back pay.

The board's decision affirms a 2007 ruling by Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol, which McCaw had appealed.


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Photo: Hundreds turn out for a rally in Santa Barbara in 2006 to protest the firings and resignations of reporters and editors at the Santa Barbara News-Press and to criticize owner Wendy McCaw's handling of the paper. Credit: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times