Involuntary Separation

Photo by Jack GouldThe on-again, off-again vote to determine whether Orange County Register pressroom workers will unionize is on again—it's tentatively scheduled for Wednesday—but dozens of the paper's most pro-union employees won't be voting. On Oct. 15, the Register laid off 41 pressroom "associates" (as the paper calls its employees), thus ensuring that they won't be able to vote in a federally supervised election.

"These workers were illegally fired," charged Marty Keegan, organization director for the Graphic Communications International Union, Local 404.

Keegan said the Register "announced these layoffs and did away with dozens of our key people" just days after he filed for the National Labor Relations Board vote. "They were active, they wore union buttons and hats at work and had signed cards supporting the union. What's really outrageous is that the Register actually used Sept. 11 as an excuse to go after these individuals."

Contacted for this story, Register officials said that layoffs had been in the works even before Sept. 11 and that the 41 pressroom employees were eliminated because their job category had been targeted for downsizing. Furthermore, they claimed, workers lost their jobs regardless of seniority, job performance or union sympathies.

In an undated memo to Register employees, senior vice president Kathy Weiermiller denied any connection between the layoffs and the union election. "All of you know this has been a dreadful year for the newspaper industry in general and, unfortunately, that has been true for the Register as well," Weiermiller wrote. "As I said before, we tried to avoid involuntary separations, but that became impossible after Sept. 11."

"We believe we were terminated because we filed a union petition," said Alex Borjon, one of the laid-off Register pressroom workers. Though the company fired people who were not union supporters—including Borjon's brother, Julian—Borjon figures 34 of the 41 workers laid off would have voted for the union.

While it's certain times are tough, the Register has hardly been neutral in the effort by its pressroom workers to win a union contract. The conservative/libertarian philosophy of the paper's editorial pages is reflected in its business practices by religious anti-unionism. In its fight against Local 404, the Register's parent company, Irvine-based Freedom Communications, hired David Burke, founder of the notorious union-busting law firm the Burke Group.

Workers quoted in a May 4, 2001, Weekly story described, among other things, a barrage of management-supervised, shop-floor meetings and constant verbal harassment of pro-union workers. One employee alleged that a supervisor slapped him during an argument about the union; other union supporters said their cars were vandalized in the employee parking lot and that workers were told they'd lose pay and benefits if they joined a union.

Register spokeswoman Nancy Souza denied those allegations, pointing out that Local 404 never filed any complaints against the newspaper; Keegan responded by saying that he didn't file them because workers were too afraid of company retaliation to testify.

The election scheduled for Wednesday has been a long time coming. Local 404 began organizing the Register's pressroom a year ago when employees contacted Keegan with complaints about unfair treatment, long hours and vanishing benefits. The union election was originally slated for April 2001, but Register publisher N. Christian Anderson III persuaded pressroom workers to give him 90 days to solve their concerns without involving the union.

"Only one of the demands was met," said Borjon, the laid-off Register pressroom worker. "We wanted more pay for night workers, and the company agreed to that." But other concerns went unanswered. One longtime pressroom worker said the paper'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, he said, a majority of the newspaper's pressroom workers were eager to join the union.

Borjon said he believes the union still has a good chance of winning the election. If anything, he said, the layoffs emphasized the need for a union. But he acknowledged that the Register's anti-union campaign—including allegations of physical threats, interrogations, and an endless war against the union and its members—might work against the union.

But worst of all, he said, was the post- Sept. 11 loss of every major union supporter on the shop floor. No longer working for the Register, for example, is Juan Oyarzabal, a 24-year veteran of the Register's pressroom. Oyarzabal was the only worker interviewed by the Weekly last May who agreed to have his name or photograph appear in the article. Also out of work are Oyarzabal's brother and father. So is Ben Diaz, an outspoken union activist who was nearing retirement age.

You didn't have to be a high-profile unionist to get the ax, though. Phil Velasquez, a 51-year-old Los Alamitos resident who had worked at the Register for nearly eight years, said he wasn't a strong union supporter but had spoken out at management-supervised meetings. He believes he lost his job for opening his mouth.

"They said they wouldn't retaliate against us for speaking out, but they did," Velasquez charged. "But they also really covered their tracks, so it wouldn't look like they targeted only union supporters. They laid off people that never attended any union meetings and had worked there for 15 years. They fired some really good guys."


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