Trashing the Union 

With the Oakland Tribune down, Mercury News may be next; and city says collecting debts from notorious bakery isn't a priority.

Less than a week after the East Bay garbage lockout ended, The Contra Costa Times ran a scathing editorial that criticized trash hauler Waste Management, calling its actions "unnecessary" and "disgraceful." The paper urged Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and other cities to examine ways to terminate their garbage contracts, saying the company should "pay a steep price" for locking out the Teamsters' union.

Ten days later, Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, majority owner of the CoCo Times, the Oakland Tribune, and other East Bay dailies, made Waste Management look downright union-friendly. The chain told officials from the Northern California Media Workers Guild — which represents reporters, photographers, and copy editors at the Trib — that it would no longer recognize the union.

MediaNews officials claimed the guild no longer represented a majority of newsroom employees following the merger of the nonunion Times and former Hills newspapers (including the Montclarion and Alameda Journal) with the unionized Trib and sister papers, a group then known as ANG Newspapers.

Guild officials immediately filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. They claimed that the company had purposely downsized ANG's staff to ensure it would be dwarfed by nonunion staff from the other papers once the merger became official.

MediaNews' move angered many local reporters. Some saw the decision to harangue Waste Management while busting the union of the very reporters who covered the garbage lockout as the height of hypocrisy. "The company clearly cares more about the quality of garbage pickup than the quality of its own newspapers," said one scribe, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

It's a scary time in the daily news business. With readers and advertisers nationwide migrating online, once-hefty profits have dwindled in the past seven years, and media companies have responded with job cuts. But according to Carl Hall, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter and former president of the guild's Northern California chapter, MediaNews' tactic may be unprecedented. He said he knew of no other company that has merged union and nonunion newspapers in order to break a union.

Veteran Oakland labor lawyer Dan Siegel, whose firm defeated MediaNews in a wrongful termination case last year, said he thinks the NLRB will ultimately order a new union election. That will leave the question of representation up to newsroom staffers rather than management. "MediaNews cannot simply wave a magic wand and say, 'You're no longer union,'" he argued.

Hall, who is working as a local rep assisting the Trib's union members, said the guild would welcome such an election, and that the union plans to ensure MediaNews management doesn't unfairly sway the outcome. "We're not so naive as to think the company won't fight back — we just hope they fight fair," he said.

Fair or not, the guild may face an uphill battle. Several Times newsroom staffers said they don't believe their colleagues will vote to unionize, given that some already earn higher wages than their Trib counterparts. "As far as I know, we get paid more and our benefits can't be any worse — so I can't see people voting for the guild," one staffer said.

Times' staffers also noted that there have been no layoffs at the paper since MediaNews bought it thirteen months ago — unlike at the Trib and the San Jose Mercury News, a union paper MediaNews also purchased in August 2006. "If you look at what happened at the other papers, then I don't see why you would vote for the union," one staffer said.

Hall said that's precisely why MediaNews has treated Times staffers well, but East Bay journalists won't be fooled. "They can see through transparent attempts to buy their loyalty," he said.

But the whole merger may have a bigger purpose. Several guild officials say MediaNews' ultimate goal is to bust the union at the Mercury News, where reporters earn $20,000 to $25,000 more per year.

Paul Rosynsky, a reporter and guild chair for the Tribune, cited company figures showing that ANG newsrooms had 129 union employees, compared with 169 nonunion news staffers at the other East Bay papers. Together they outnumber the Merc's newsroom staff of two hundred. If MediaNews can keep its combined East Bay operation union-free, it could later merge it with the South Bay papers, decertify the Merc's union, and start cutting salaries. "There's no doubt in my mind that they will try it," Rosynsky said. "I think they intend to make the Bay Area the model for union busting."

Marshall Anstandig, lead union negotiator for MediaNews, said the company has no plans to merge the Merc with the East Bay newsrooms.

Still, Luther Jackson, executive director of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, said union officials are watching the situation and plan to get involved. "If we sit back and do nothing, there's no telling what's going to happen — but we don't intend to do that," he said.

(Full disclosure: I am a former guild rep at the Trib. My wife is a Mercury News reporter. The Express is nonunion.)

Your Black Muslim Giveaway

The City of Oakland has a long history of cutting Your Black Muslim Bakery slack. Back in 1996, city officials practically stumbled over themselves to approve a $1.1 million loan so the Bey clan could spin off a home healthcare business. But the business never got built, and the city never saw a penny of its money again.

Even now, with the bakery all wrapped up in the assassination of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, the city is ignoring debts owed it by the family and followers of the late Yusuf Bey.

Since January 2005, the city has fined Your Black Muslim Bakery at least fourteen times for a total of $17,426, according to public records. The fines were for owning and operating blighted property, and failing to pay monthly garbage bills. When the Beys ignored the fines, the city placed liens against their property. In addition, the city took the bakery to court in May and won a judgment for $516 in back business taxes.

But when bakery CEO Yusuf Bey IV filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October, for some reason the city didn't file a claim with the bankruptcy court. The city also made no claims on the bakery's assets after a federal judge placed the bakery in Chapter 7 on August 10 and ordered its holdings sold to pay off its debts.

Eric Nyberg is the lawyer for Tevis T. Thompson Jr. , the trustee appointed by the court to manage the complexities of the bankruptcy case. The city, Nyberg said, must file a claim with the federal court on behalf of Oakland taxpayers to collect what the Beys owe. So far, bankruptcy records show that five creditors have filed such claims: the IRS ($241,120), Davis Mortgage Investment Fund ($686,751), Richard Stovall of Berkeley ($100,000), Patricia Hill of San Leandro ($11,000), and the state of California ($119,367).

Michael Hunt, a spokesman in Mayor Dellums' office, referred inquiries to City Attorney John Russo about why the city hasn't filed a claim, too. At first Russo's spokesman Alex Katz said, "We don't believe we would stand to recover any money." But when told that the bakery's listed assets outstrip its debts, Katz said there was another reason for not filing. He and Jim Hodgkins, the office's supervising trial attorney, said that because the city had filed property liens, it was up to Alameda County to collect.

Asked why other public agencies had no trouble making a claim on bakery assets when they, too, had placed liens on the property, Katz and Hodgkins contended that the city has a different sort of relationship with the county, but couldn't explain what that was.

These rationales are nonsense in any case. Reached by phone, Richard Winnie, the county's lead counsel, said filing a bankruptcy claim is the city's responsibility. In a later phone call, Katz conceded that collecting the money was simply not a priority.

Yusuf Bey must be laughing in his grave.

Code of Silence

A few months back we told you about Alameda County Undersheriff Rich Lucia and his use of a large police truck for personal business. To refresh your memory, Lucia, second in command at the sheriff's office, allegedly commandeered the truck on a June weekend to move to a new house. Lucia, however, maintained that he used it only to drive some of his things to charity and moved his other belongings in a rented van.

Either way, departmental regulations bar the use of police vehicles for personal business, so his boss, Sheriff Greg Ahern, ordered an investigation. It's not the first time Lucia has been in hot water. In the early '80s, he was convicted of theft and fired from the Hayward PD after charging a local college for a class he never taught.

Problem is, now that the investigation is complete, Ahern refuses to release the results or reveal whether he reprimanded Lucia. Spokesman Sergeant J.D. Nelson cited "personnel reasons."

Whatever. At least there's one new tidbit to report: Lucia's son, Chris Lucia, a sheriff's sergeant, was in on the move, too, and also was investigated, sources said.

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