Unionizing to save the Santa Barbara News-Press

MELINDA BURNS was a regional reporter for the Santa Barbara News-Press. She and her fired colleagues plan to launch a local news site,, today.

Santa Barbara — AT THE Santa Barbara News-Press, where the newsroom has unraveled under attack from a wealthy owner, a law like the proposed Employee Free Choice Act could have made all the difference.

Reporters, copy editors and photographers voted 33 to 6 in September to join the Graphic Communications Conference, a union that is an affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But six months later, contract negotiations have yet to begin. Wendy P. McCaw, the News-Press’ owner and co-publisher, filed a challenge to the union vote with the National Labor Relations Board and then fired eight reporters — all union activists, including me, a senior writer with 21 years at the paper.

The conflict began last summer when six top editors, a columnist and a reporter resigned to protest McCaw’s interference in news coverage. A raft of other journalists, most of them union supporters, have quit since then. Now, because of the union-related firings, those left in the newsroom won’t join our protests for fear of losing their jobs.

It’s illegal in this country to fire workers for participating in a union campaign, but an employer can delay justice for years by filing legal challenges. The Employee Free Choice Act cuts out this tactic by streamlining the process of unionizing. From bitter experience, we’d advise every worker in America to demand a “yes” vote on the bill from Congress. Think of it as an insurance policy against a really bad boss.

The Employee Free Choice Act has been approved by the House but faces an uncertain fate in the Senate. It would certify a union as soon as the majority of employees in a bargaining unit signed union cards. Negotiations for the first contract would begin within 10 days. After four months, if the parties were unable to reach an agreement, an arbitrator would intervene.

Contrast that speedy timetable with the excruciating waiting game at the News-Press. Believing that a union contract was the best way to protect our jobs and restore integrity to the paper, most journalists signed cards to join the Teamsters in July. We asked McCaw to recognize our union based on those cards, a step encouraged by the labor relations board, but she refused. So we conducted an election campaign, overcoming an onslaught of propaganda from hired union-busters, and won.

But then McCaw challenged the validity of the vote, claiming without evidence that some of our editors had coerced us into voting for the Teamsters. A judge finally upheld the union victory — but not until early March.

So the union won. But what does winning mean if many of your supporters quit before negotiations even start? Or if you still don’t have your job back after months and months? In all, 40 people have left the newsroom since early July. The News-Press has only three news reporters today, down from 15 in June.

I was escorted out of the building in late October, a month after the union vote. I had been hired in 1985 by the New York Times Co., the previous News-Press owner. My colleague John Zant, a senior sportswriter, was fired two months ago by McCaw after 38 years at the paper.

The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel has announced it will prosecute the News-Press for firing us and six others. We will be represented by federal lawyers at a hearing this spring. But when will we get our jobs back, with back pay? Next year?

Under the Bush administration, the labor relations board has rarely sought injunctions ordering employers to immediately reinstate workers who were fired for organizing. The Employee Free Choice Act would require the board to do so. And it would assess fines of up to $20,000 every time a company violated a worker’s rights during a campaign to start a union or negotiate an initial contract.

Those of us who were fired don’t know how long we can hold out in Santa Barbara, one of the most expensive cities in America. I’m putting my house up for rent. Others are borrowing money to pay their bills. You can lose a lot of sleep when you lose your job, and we’re a pretty exhausted bunch. That’s what McCaw is counting on.

McCaw, a multimillionaire, has hired seven law firms and a public relations firm to defeat our union drive. Our legal costs, well into six figures, are coming out of the union dues of Teamster truck drivers, warehouse employees, construction workers and pressmen.

We’ve told our colleagues inside the newsroom that it’s OK not to join our picket lines in front of the News-Press. The union can’t afford to lose another person to the black hole of litigation. This is a fight for the soul of our newspaper. We just wish the law could have saved us from the worst of it.