by Elsa Kim
The Northern California Media Workers Guild filed charges of unfair labor practices on Tuesday against MediaNews Group, the owner of most of the East Bay's daily newspapers. Since the recent formation of a Guild unit covering the East Bay employees of the Bay Area News Group, 29 employees have been laid off. Their numbers include at least 20 union supporters and the elected chair of the unit, Sara Steffens.
The union's complaint against MediaNews, filed with the National Labor Relations Board in Oakland, cites three major violations of their rights: firing employees in retaliation against their support of the union, ending the system of pay based on merit, and urging employees to give up their rights under the National Labor Relations Act or risk losing their eligibility for the severance package.
Union representatives Steffens and Carl Hall claim that this is part of the company's continuing hostility toward the Guild, which began when the MediaNews-owned California Newspaper partnership purchased the Contra Costa Times and affiliates in 2006. MediaNews subsequently stopped recognizing the Oakland Guild unit, saying that less than half of the remaining employees were union members. Meanwhile, Guild officials said that MediaNews downsized the union papers it acquired in order to decrease the number of union members in relation to nonunion members.
Hall said that BANG employees voted 104 to 92 to sign union cards in the May 2 election to unionize the company's East Bay papers. Thus, the removal of 20 union supporters might conceivably jeopardize the union's majority one year from now, when newsroom employees could petition the NLRB to decertify the union, he conceded. "I guess if they lay off everybody in the plant that they think was supportive, that might make it difficult for us," he said. However, Hall said he thought the company's actions would backfire. "We're getting more support now than we had before the election, including some people who were skeptical about the Guild and its chances. If they can get away with firing Sara Steffens despite her awards and all of her standing in the journalism community, then who else can they go after?"
Marshall Anstandig, general counsel for the California Newspaper Partnership, told the Associated Press that it was "ridiculous" to assert that the layoffs were related to the union vote. He said managers made staff cutbacks based on the decreasing revenue from the newspapers and the current economic recession.
If the NLRB finds upon investigation that the union's charges are valid, it could issue a complaint to reinstate employees and compensate them with back pay.