[Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 3:27 p.m. with comments from the Santa Barbara News-Press.]
The publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press committed multiple unfair labor practices and will be required to offer eight fired journalists who took part in union organizing their jobs back, the National Labor Relations Board found in a decision issued Aug. 11.
The 3-0 decision rejected arguments by Ampersand Publishing, the parent of the News-Press, that owner Wendy McCaw was within her rights to fire the journalists because their unionizing activities were related to editorial content rather than wages and benefits. News-Press officials said the company plans to appeal the decision to the federal courts.
“We’re glad we finally can enter into a conclusion to this long struggle for retaining the First Amendment rights of our editorial content,” Don Katich, director of news operations at the newspaper, told the Business Times. “We look forward to being in the appeals court.”
In 2006, more than a dozen journalists, including Editor Jerry Roberts, left the News-Press in protest because they felt McCaw was exercising undue influence on the publication’s news content. Some of the remaining journalists organized under the Graphics Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Eight reporters were fired: Melinda Burns, Anna Davison, Tom Schultz, Dawn Hobbs, Melissa Evans, John Zant, Rob Kuznia, and Barney McManigal. They claimed it was for their support of the union and took their case to labor regulators.
In extensive hearings before Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol, McCaw’s attorneys argued she and the company were exercising their First Amendment right to control the newspaper’s content by firing their reporters. Judge Kocol disagreed, and the national board largely upheld his decision.
“The judge found that the [News-Press] 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. Our order remedies that unlawful conduct,” the board’s decision said.
The board ordered that the News-Press offer the eight fired employees their jobs back and make them whole with back pay.
Michael Zinser, an attorney for the News-Press, said the company plans to appeal the board’s decision to the federal courts. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled against labor regulators when they sought an injunction to reinstate the fired reporters based on Judge Kocol’s ruling.
“Today’s NLRB decision is at odds with the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled that control of the content of the newspaper resides with the owner of the newspaper and goes to the core of entrepreneurial control,” Zinser told the Business Times. “This decision is not consistent with that and, in my opinion, ducks the issue” of McCaw’s First Amendment rights.
In 2002, McCaw went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit to block Santa Barbara County officials from obtaining an easement through her property for public access to a strip of beach below her bluff-top estate in Hope Ranch. She lost the appeal.