Op-Ed: Wendy McCaw and the Abuse of Power
By Melinda Burns and Dawn Hobbs
The law is slowly catching up with Wendy McCaw, the multimillionaire owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, once a well-respected institution in our community.
Earlier this month, an administrative law judge of the National Labor Relations Board ordered McCaw to pay $2 million to the Teamsters and nearly 50 newsroom employees, in restitution for labor law violations going back a dozen years.
It’s a big win – but with a big asterisk. If the past is any guide, McCaw will likely appeal the Sept. 4 ruling, delaying justice for even longer. The board’s General Counsel tallied up the hefty $2 million in “monetary relief” in 2018, and McCaw has been contesting that amount ever since. Why wouldn’t she continue the dilatory litigation she is so well-known for?
We wonder whether and when McCaw will ever be forced to pay a penny for mistreating her employees, much less agree to a union contract. Fourteen years after the summer of 2006, when the so-called “News-Press Mess” exploded and the newsroom voted overwhelmingly to join the Teamsters, there is still no end in sight to this scandal.
This month’s ruling comes during the runup to a critical Presidential election, giving our country the chance to change course and ensure a better future for working people. It’s a crucial reminder that when we vote for President, we are in effect voting for his appointments to administrative agencies, federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, where labor law is interpreted and – hopefully – upheld.
The Teamsters have been generous and steadfast in their pursuit of justice for the News-Press newsroom, but labor law, we know from bitter experience, is ineffective and weakly enforced. We are two of the eight reporters whom McCaw unjustly fired soon after the union vote; all eight of us lost our case for reinstatement and back pay at the Washington, D.C. federal appeals court in 2012. Under this latest ruling, we will each be paid between zero and $88. Rich employers who want to bust a union can thwart justice with relative ease.
In the present case, the NLRB found in 2015 that McCaw was liable for a host of “flagrant unfair labor practices” beginning in 2007 – including illegally laying off News-Press columnist Richard Mineards and firing sportswriter Dennis Moran; cheating newsroom employees out of their merit pay in retaliation for joining the Teamsters; denying them work by hiring temporary employees without negotiating with the union; and overall bargaining in bad faith. We remember how insulting it was to sit at the table while McCaw’s agents found a hundred different ways to say “no.”
In 2018, the union filed new charges against McCaw for bargaining in bad faith, for failing to provide merit pay and for doubling the cost of health care to newsroom employees without negotiating with the union. The Teamsters have been pressuring the NLRB to file contempt of court charges against McCaw, but under the current administration, the response has been lethargic.
Newsroom employees staged protests beginning in 2006 and organized a community-wide boycott of the paper after McCaw began firing reporters and refused to recognize the union. Photo by Melinda Burns.
McCaw and Trump
It comes as no surprise that McCaw endorsed President Donald Trump this Sept. 1 for a second term. In the 2016 campaign, she was one of the first daily newspaper publishers to do so, and proud of it. McCaw and Trump have so much in common: their immense wealth, their abuse of power, their contempt for journalists, their attacks on working people, and the sheer malice with which they have undermined democratic institutions and the rule of law. Here in Santa Barbara – ironically, one of the bluest of blue cities – you could say we knew Trump before there was Trump.
For us personally and for our community, it was a dramatic reversal of fortune. During that fateful summer of 2006, five of our top editors had resigned, alleging that McCaw was interfering in the newsroom and punishing reporters and editors in order to curry favor with her celebrity friends.
At the top of our careers, we knew we needed a union contract to protect our job rights and our bylines from McCaw’s arbitrary attacks. Confronted with her intransigence, we organized a community-wide boycott of the News-Press that continues strong today, thanks to the outrage and solidarity of our fellow citizens.
The NLRB ruled in our favor in 2011, based on findings of McCaw’s “widespread, general disregard for the fundamental rights of the employees,” but in the D.C. appeals court, a panel of three Republican appointees sided with McCaw’s ominous contention that we, as union members, were interfering with her First Amendment rights as publisher.
One of the judges on our case had previously voided the felony conviction of Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal; another had joined the court in tossing out the lawsuit of four Muslim former prisoners who were tortured at Guantanamo, stating that they were “non-persons.” The third had voted against the provision in the federal Voting Rights Act that reined in states with a history of suppressing the votes of people of color.
McCaw’s long game is well-suited to the Republican packing of the courts. Over time, she has hired a dozen law firms to fight the union. As she continued to flout the law, the Teamsters were forced to file charges on behalf of dozens of our former colleagues and those who came after us through the revolving door of a hostile workplace. McCaw has likely spent more in legal fees than the $2 million she now owes.
McCaw’s fanatic anti-union stance places her in a small but defiant minority of U.S. employers. To put it in perspective, consider that Brett Kavanaugh, the ultra- conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice, found McCaw liable in 2017 when he was serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C., in an earlier phase of the very case that the administrative law judge ruled on this month.
Community members gathered in De la Guerra Plaza in July, 2011 for a rally on the fifth anniversary of what is popularly known as the News-Press Mess. Photo by Melinda Burns.
Dickie Montemayor, who works in the NLRB’s San Francisco branch, doesn’t mince words in his Sept. 4 order for $2 million in “monetary relief.” McCaw’s violations of labor law, he stated, “were so broad and numerous that the Board’s cease and desist portion of its order contained 17 separate paragraphs delineating the breadth” of her “unlawful conduct.”
The NLRB rarely mandates reimbursement of a union’s bargaining expenses, but because the board found that McCaw’s agents engaged in “aggravated misconduct” and “willful defiance” at the bargaining table, Montemayor ordered McCaw to pay the Teamsters $111,000 for the time and expense of fruitless negotiations.
In addition, Montemayor ruled that McCaw owes $550,000 in back pay and tax expenses to Mineards, who now writes for the Montecito Journal; and $157,000 to Moran, who was serving on the union’s negotiating team when McCaw fired him. In Mineards’ case, the NLRB ruled that McCaw broke the law by refusing to negotiate his layoff with the union.
McCaw “inflicted severe economic harm upon both Moran and Mineards, who were sent scurrying in an attempt to avoid financial ruin,” Montemayor stated.
Montemayor also ordered McCaw to pay $222,000 in lost merit pay to 31 employees, all but two of whom have long since been fired or fled the paper. And he said McCaw must pay $936,000 to 40 employees in order to make them “whole” for the work they lost while she hired temps as reporters.
We note that while the payout for some employees has been justly set at many tens of thousands of dollars, it won’t come in time for two of our former colleagues, the late Steve Malone, a photographer, and the late Sherrie Waggener, a newsroom clerk, who were each slated to receive more than $48,000.
Sadly, only about eight employees remain in the News-Press newsroom today, including two managers, compared to a staff that was 65 strong in 2006. But the six who are not managers are still represented by the union. Without the Teamsters and thousands of you former News-Press readers who cancelled your subscriptions years ago, there would be no one to hold McCaw accountable.
We can’t let the likes of McCaw and Trump trample on our rights for another four minutes, let alone another four years. Everything’s at stake on November 3rd.
Melinda Burns was a News-Press senior writer and worked at the paper for 21 years. Dawn Hobbs was a News-Press reporter for nine years. Together, they led the newsroom campaign to join the Teamsters in 2006, and the News-Press boycott that followed the union vote.
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