Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Hitchhiker's Guide to The NLRB Hearings

I feel that I can say with some confidence that the eight journalists who were fired from the Santa Barbara News-Press are looking forward to the start of today's hearings on whether the newspaper violated the National Labor Relations act by terminating them.

I can't tell you how News-Press owner Wendy McCaw feels because as far as I know she's not giving interviews and even if she were, I doubt that she'd be talking to me.

The proceedings get underway at 10 a.m. this morning at the Bankruptcy Court in downtown Santa Barbara.

As we all know, you can't tell the players without a scorecard so here's your scorecard. I'll try to brief you on everything you need to know in order to follow the hearings.

The charges. Think of the Teamsters Union, who represents the newsroom employees who voted to organize, as being the complaining party. They successfully persuaded the NLRB to prosecute the News-Press on allegations that they violated labor regulations.

Included among the violations the paper has been accused of:

  • Illegally firing six reporters who participated in a union demonstration on a freeway overpass where they displayed a banner visible to morning commuters urging them to cancel their subscriptions to the paper.

  • Firing staff writers Melinda Burns and Anna Davison on trumped of charges of biased reporting.

  • Denying annual performance bonuses to reporters who favored unionization.

  • Disrupting a meeting union employees were attempting to have with some of the paper's advertisers.

  • Suspending employees who attempted to communicate with McCaw by delivering a letter to her office.

  • The judge. The case will be heard by an administrative law judge appointed by the the NLRB to hear the evidence and make a recommendation to the Board. That judge will be William G. Kocol. About five years ago he presided over a similar type hearing brought against the Providence Journal of Rhode Island and found it in violation on virtually every charge the NLRB brought against it. Other than being described as a "no-nonsense kind of guy" not much else is known about him.

    The attorneys. The case is being prosecuted by the NLRB so they will put on their evidence first. The lead prosecutor for the NLRB is Steve Wyllie who will be assisted by Brian Gee. Both are out of the NLRB's regional office in Los Angeles.

    After counsel for the NLRB presents its case it will be the Union's turn. It will be represented by Ira Gottlieb. Of all the attorneys on the case Gottlieb has been involved the longest and figures to have the most comprehensive command of the facts.

    Finally, as "the defendant" the News-Press will present it's evidence last. Barry Cappello will be the lead attorney. He will most likely by assisted by one or more attorneys from his firm and also will be joined by Michael Zinser, who's been described as a union busting specialist out of Nashville, Tennessee.

    Cappello figures to be much better prepared, better organized and much more polished than Sandra McCandless who represented the paper in the NLRB proceedings that were held in January.

    I've seen Cappello in action a number of times over the years and in my opinion there are few lawyers who can dominate a courtroom the way he can. I fully expect him to be at the top of his game for this hearing.

    Don't expect to see much of News-Press lawyer David Millstein. As one of the principals in the alleged meeting crashing incident he figures to be a witness rather than actively participating in the presentation of the case.

    The witnesses. Expect to see each of the fired journalists called to the stand in the early days of the hearing as the counsel for the NLRB goes forward with his case. If McCaw is called as a witness it will most likely be by the Union. There figures to be a feverish battle over whether the Union will be permitted to call her. The News-Press is likely to try to make most if its case through Associate Editor Scott Steepleton. Given the less than favorable impression he made on the judge at the hearing in January, how effective he will be remains to be seen.

    As I mentioned yesterday, the News-Press will probably call former editor Jerry Roberts in their case.

    And what about all of the former News-Press employees who received subpoenas from the paper? Late last week they received certified letters asking them if they would consent to being "on call." That is, instead of showing up this morning as their subpoenaes indicated, they could agree instead to come in when called by the News-Press. That's not unusual. However, those "on call" notices are usually served along with the subpoenas.

    Why would Cappello want to call them? I've thought about that for some time now. My guess is that most of them will end up not being called to testify, but Cappello being as meticulous as he is when it comes to preparation, wants to have every possible witness under subpoena should it turn out he needs a particular person. Easier to cancel a sub than to scramble to have one served in the middle of a hearing. Since money is no object for his client, everybody gets paper laid on them.

    Media coverage. Of course The Independent and the Daily Sound will be covering the proceedings. The Ventura County Star is planning extensive coverage and the Santa Maria Times will send a reporter to today's proceedings and then play it by ear after that. The L.A. Times may send a reporter. KEYT is an unknown, but with no cameras permitted in the courtroom, the photo ops will be few and far between.

    And of course I will be there. As usual I'll have a new post everyday and I plan to be spending most of my lunch hours at the Coffee Cat using the free WiFi to give readers an update every afternoon. I'm sure there will also be plenty of lively discussion over at Blogabarbara.

    There's one news outlet who's coverage of the hearings figures to be spotty if not downright non-existent, the News-Press.

    The schedule. The hearing will not proceed continuously until completed. In fact, the first two weeks will be pretty erratic from a consistency aspect. Here is the schedule: Today, tomorrow and Thursday then, August 23-24, and September 4-7 and 10-14.

    * * *

    Randy Alcorn, former CFO at the NP, is resurrecting his popular opinion column — Right on Target — in the Santa Maria Times. It will run biweekly. The first one ran Sunday.

    Return to top of page       E-Mail Me       Print This Page