Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Oakland Tribune Editors Allegedly Told to Trick Reporters

By Robert Gammon
Tue, Sep 18, 2007 at 4:57 PM

High-ranking executives at MediaNews Group, majority owner of the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times, instructed mid-level editors at two meetings earlier this year to encourage reporters and photographers to decertify the union at the Trib and its sister papers, formerly known as ANG Newspapers, said a former editor who was present at the meetings. John Bowman, who resigned in May as editor of the San Mateo County Times, also said in an interview that the executives told him and other mid-level editors that they should "strongly imply" to their reporters that ANG newsroom employees had lower salaries than those at the CoCo Times because they were union members. He also said they were told to tell reporters that the ANG contract set salaries -- an implication that the company was thus prohibited from raising pay to match what reporters earn at the nonunion CoCo Times.

The instructions were clearly meant to trick ANG staffers, because the union contract in effect at the time only required minimum salaries and minimum raises, and did not prohibit across-the-board salary increases. In fact, many ANG employees, according to Bowman and sources at the newspapers, received extra raises above what the contract required before it expired July 1. "They basically told us to do everything we could to encourage employees to decertify the union," Bowman said. "They told us to tell our employees that the only difference between Contra Costa employees and you is that you have a union and they don't. They also said to tell our people that we would pay them more but the contract their union signed prohibits it."

Bowman's allegations, which have been corroborated by other ANG employees, prompted the Northern California Media Workers Guild, the union representing reporters, photographers, and editors at the former ANG, to file another official charge last week against MediaNews with the National Labor Relations Board. It was the third NLRB charge filed by the guild since MediaNews announced last month that it would no longer recognize the union. MediaNews officials have argued that since they merged the former ANG with the CoCo Times and the former Hills papers, including the Montclarion, the Alameda Journal, and the Berkeley Voice, the guild no longer represents a majority of newsroom employees.

The three high-ranking executives who led the meetings were Kevin Keane, Marshall Anstandig, and Pete Wevurski, Bowman said. MediaNews chief Dean Singleton handpicked Keane several years ago to run the editorial operations at ANG. Keane is the vice president and executive editor of BANG-EB -- the new corporate name for the merged East Bay dailies. Anstandig is the general counsel for the San Jose Mercury News, also controlled by MediaNews. Wevurski is Keane's right-hand man, managing editor of BANG-EB, and editor of the Tribune. Bowman said Keane and Anstandig issued the instructions at the two meetings.

Keane did not immediately return a phone call, but Wevurski denied Bowman's allegations and said Bowman left the company under "clouded circumstances." "We never told editors to encourage a decertification," Wevurski said. (A decertification occurs when union members vote to get rid of the union). Wevurski also said he and Keane told editors that if union issues were to come up during informal talks with reporters and photographers that they should tell them that semi-annual raises mandated by the union contract forced the company to reduce what was available for merit-based increases.

But Paul Rosynsky, a Trib reporter and chair of the bargaining unit at the paper, said he other guild officials were inclined to believe Bowman, because they've heard the same allegations from other ANG workers during the past several months. "It confirms what we knew all along - that top management brought in by Dean Singleton instructed editors to lie to reporters," Rosynsky said. "It was all about busting the union."

Regardless of whether Bowman's claims are true, Keane and Wevurski's plan backfired, Rosynsky said. Once mid-level editors started telling reporters that their union contract was to blame for not receiving more pay, reporters began asking questions of their guild reps. And once reporters learned the contract contained no prohibitions on raises, they became angry with the company, and some even joined the union as a result, he said.

Bowman said he never carried out Keane and Wevurski's instructions because they were "patently absurd." "I just didn't think our reporters were so stupid to believe that stuff," he said. He also said he resigned his post for many reasons, including the fact that the company refused make basic repairs to the San Mateo County Times building in San Mateo. He said the building's locks had been broken for some time, and that thieves stole the copper piping.

Bowman added that MediaNews would not fix the heating and cooling system and that the temperature inside the newsroom earlier this year would drop to the "thirties" when he arrived for work in the morning and then reach the "nineties" in his office by late afternoon. He also said a pregnant female worker refused to come to work after she found rat droppings on her desk. And finally, he said, company execs reprimanded an employee after an OSHA inspector showed up at the newspaper and the employee allowed the inspector into the building without first calling corporate officials. "They called it a gross violation of company protocol," he said.

Bowman's allegations also come on the heels of an NLRB judgment last week against MediaNews, ordering the company to permanently withdraw its internal e-mail policy. Guild officials claimed the policy, which prohibited reporters from e-mailing more than one person inside the company at time, was designed to stifle union organizing.

Full disclosure: I am a former union official at the Tribune and I helped negotiate the union contract that expired in July.

Clarification: This blog post was updated and clarified following a second interview with John Bowman.

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