Photo by Jeanne RiceOrange County Registerpublisher Chris Anderson was in such a great mood on April 2 he just had to share it with someone. Having just learned that Local 404 of the Graphic Communications Union had withdrawn its petition to unionize about 100 of his pressroom "associates," Anderson typed this e-mail to his staff:
"The withdrawal of this petition is a testament to a lot of hard and outstanding work by a lot of our colleagues," Anderson wrote, thanking several Register officials by name. "All these people changed a lot of minds over the past few weeks, and they did it professionally and passionately."
Perhaps Anderson was lauding the professional way a Register supervisor allegedly shoved an employee who had spoken out in favor of the union. Or perhaps it was the passionate way other union supporters allegedly found their cars vandalized in the Register's guarded parking lot. Or maybe it was the never-ending, captive-audience meetings. Whatever it was, it worked.
"This is a big win for us," wrote the giddy Anderson.
The union campaign began in January when a group of disgruntled workers asked Local 404 for help. Register workers who spoke with the Weekly say fellow employees and supervisors created an atmosphere of intimidation that intensified throughout the drive to organize. Most significantly, workers assert they were told by Register officials that they could face loss of benefits and pay if the union won the election —a charge that, if true, may help explain why the paper was so successful in convincing so many workers who wanted a union contract in January to change their minds by April.
As Anderson noted in his e-mail, Local 404 withdrew its election petition just days after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Register and the union "had agreed to an election date of April 18, and this on the heels of the NLRB ruling that our pressroom crew leaders would be excluded and production-maintenance associates included in the voting unit. . . . Those were the results that we had sought."
Trying to change the makeup of the bargaining unit—and therefore, who gets to vote in a union election—is a standard anti-union tactic employed by union-busting consultants hired by virulent anti-union outfits such as the Register.
In fact, Anderson's victory e-mail didn't thank the one person most responsible for beating the union: David Burke, founder of the union-busting Burke Group, hired by the paper to do its dirty work.
Although Register officials from Anderson on down did their part, it was the Burke Group who allegedly orchestrated the anti-union campaign that terrorized the pressroom. All but one worker refused to be mentioned by name, claiming they would face retaliation—as in "termination," they said—if they spoke out. But Juan Oyarzabal, a 24-year Register employee, agreed to speak on the record. Oyarzabal said the Register's management style had become increasingly hostile since the late 1980s. Besides a steady downsizing of the pressroom and intensification of the production process, he said the Register has ended incentives such as year-end bonuses, severely cut back on overtime pay, and maintained a merit-pay system prone to management favoritism.
By January 2001, Oyarzabal said, a majority of the newspaper's pressroom workers were eager to join the union.
"At first, the company thought we were just a bunch of guys that were going nowhere," he recalled. "But when we brought 40 people to a meeting they had scheduled with us, they realized we had 70 percent of the workers on our side. That's when they called the union busters. We had two to three hours of meetings every day. They said they were 'counselors' and wanted to educate us about the law and persuade us not to join the union."
According to Oyarzabal, Anderson himself called a conference of all the press workers and urged them not to vote for the union.
"He said he wanted the union to go away and promised he would solve the problems in the pressroom if we gave him 90 days," Oyarzabal said. "That's when we withdrew the petition. We had a lot of pressure from the company, so at the end, most people didn't want to do anything. [The workers] just backed off."
Nancy Souza, the Register's communications director, said the company is unaware of any evidence to support allegations by workers of harassment, threats and intimidation.
"That might be a tactic unions use, but it is not a tactic that the Register would ever use," said Souza, who was specifically lauded in Anderson's message as being "instrumental in our communications efforts, helping us get the right phrases and the right presentation of the myriad of written pieces we gave our associates."
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Added Souza, "How do you win support with threats? That is not how you win."
Souza charged that despite holding a press conference about the alleged labor-law violations, Local 404 organizing director Marty Keegan failed to file any charges with the NLRB. Keegan responded by saying that he did indeed file the charges but withdrew them because the workers who had been threatened were afraid of being fired if they testified. He acknowledged that the union's efforts to organize the Register have been dealt a serious setback but predicted that the Register's anti-union campaign would ultimately steer more workers toward the union.
Souza acknowledged that there was a "communication" problem between the Register and its "associates," but she expressed confidence that Local 404 withdrew its petition because the paper's workers simply don't want a union.
"I'm not saying the union didn't have support when [the campaign] started," she explained. But following the Register's anti-union effort, "the feeling here is that the union will come in and do a lot of harm."