Not Dead Yet

Oakland Tribune owner moves to bust the union; union fights back.

In the news biz, it’s called burying the lead — putting the most newsworthy bit deep down in the story. Publisher John Armstrong did just that in a memo sent last week to employees of ANG Newspapers — the Oakland Tribune and its sister papers — as well as folks at The Contra Costa Times, its sister papers, and the former Hills newspapers, now all owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group. After expounding about the official merger of all these papers under the banner Bay Area News Group-East Bay, or BANG-East Bay, and what it all meant, Armstrong dropped the bomb. Oh, by the way, the new company would not be recognizing the union that had represented reporters, photographers, and copy editors at the ANG publications.

So that’s it for the union? Well, not so fast. Carl Hall, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter and rep for the Northern California Media Workers Guild, insists that Armstrong’s having said so doesn’t necessarily make it so.

The union had predicted the company’s move since July 25, when plans for BANG-East Bay were first unveiled. In the last three weeks, the union twice filed charges against MediaNews with the National Labor Relations Board for refusal to bargain in good faith, and for transferring jobs and employees out of its jurisdiction to the nonunion CoCo Times.

Hall says the company may have deliberately depleted its ANG unit over several months while expanding operations at the nonunion papers in order to take away their union status prior to the merger. Labor law holds that if the majority of workers in a merged business are not union members, and didn’t vote for union representation, then the union can’t impose itself on the new entity.

The legal question, Hall says, is whether it’s a true merger with ANG fully integrated into the bigger company, or whether the unionized portion persists as a distinctive unit. The guild is banking on the latter, since only about twenty of its 125 employees were transferred to the CoCo Times Walnut Creek office.

The union’s other flank of attack is to start organizing its CoCo Times counterparts. “We make no secret about this,” Hall says. “Our interest is any news worker that wants to be represented, we want to help them achieve that goal. Even if we prevail in our legal strategy and wind up with an ANG unit after this consolidation, to be effective and successful we’re going to have to organize the larger entity.”

Hall also says the union will appeal to the community for support while working to keep the papers successful. “We’re going to try to avoid demonization,” he notes. “We don’t want to engage in any tactics to harm the empire.”

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