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Columnist

At the talks, Teamsters' tantrums and tedium


May 23, 2008 7:45 AM

Over the last couple of months, I've been sitting at the negotiation table for the News-Press in talks with the union that believes it represents newsroom reporters, photographers and copy editors.

Labor negotiations are mysterious affairs to those not involved in them. I remember taking a labor law course during my third year as a student at the UCLA School of Law and thinking, "that would be really fascinating to participate in someday. What goes on in them?"

But the reality is that the talks can be tedious, as employer and union representatives wrangle over a few words here or there for inclusion in a contract. Hours can go by as the union representatives -- including fired reporters Melinda Burns, Dawn Hobbs and Tom Schultz -- leave the talks and privately huddle in a hotel suite at Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort on Santa Barbara's waterfront with a Teamsters negotiator. The Teamsters fly him in every month from Minnesota.

You get a sense of where union dues go when you see union employees or their consultants in action. I recall how, at last year's hearings regarding unfair labor practice charges against the News-Press, the Teamsters attorney drove up from L.A. in his foreign luxury car (I thought these unions want everything to be American-made), stayed at the high-end Hotel Andalucia and entertained, buying drinks at the hotel's rooftop bar.

So much for being frugal with money from the rank and file. I hope my union dues on the occasions when I belonged to the Newspaper Guild didn't support such extravagance. The Internet contains sites exposing the six-figure salaries of Teamsters executives and organizers and of the waste in general.

As for our negotiations, the News-Press management continues in good faith to try to work out a contract that won't impede the newspaper's ability to survive and grow in these challenging times for our industry. Daily newspapers across the country are paring back as they try to adapt to the era of electronic news and advertising.

The talks, as I said, can be slow-moving affairs but do have their moments.

It doesn't help attempts to reach consensus, though, when one's emotions become unglued. At one point last week, for instance, Ms. Burns raced from the meeting room, slamming the door aside, after she apparently disagreed with the words of News-Press attorney Dugan Kelley.

Mr. Kelley, of the Santa Barbara law firm of Cappello & Noel, basically just asked the other side of the table, "How many shares of the News-Press do you own?"

The answer is none. Instead, this union and the fired reporters for two years have been trying to use the National Labor Relations Act to trump News-Press owner Wendy McCaw's First Amendment protections and take control of the newspaper's content.

It seems that they don't even want the news editors at the paper to make journalistic decisions. Their words in the past have suggested that the reporters -- those discharged for bias and other offenses and now trying to get their jobs back in the courts -- should be the only ones to decide what's in this newspaper.

God help us if that happens. An independent survey by an outside company in 2005 found that the former reporting and editing staffs of the News-Press were producing a newspaper that nearly two-thirds of the respondents found biased. They believed that reporters were injecting their own political views into news stories.

Mrs. McCaw is trying to root that out. In return for attempting to better the News-Press, she's put up with mean-spirited and often misogynist assaults by union supporters and by those who liked the personal or left-leaning opinions reporters snuck into their stories.

The union last week refused to include the offense of writing biased stories as a cause for disciplinary action.

So now you have a bit of an idea of how it works at the bargaining table. I'll go into more details in future columns about the talks -- and how the union last week abandoned bargaining over the key demand that it used to persuade employees to vote yes in its certification drive in 2006.

Travis Armstrong is the editorial page editor of the News-Press and host of a public affairs program heard live at 10 a.m. Wednesdays on AM 1290.

Travis Armstrong