UPDATE, June 26, 2012: The Albany Newspaper Guild announced today that they have reached a settlement with Hearst Corporation over a 2009 layoff dispute involving 11 employees of the Times-Union. Under the terms of the settlement, Hearst will reinstate three employees who wish to return to the Times-Union and will pay out financial settlements to 11 former employees.
George Hearst, publisher of the Times Union, confirmed that the Hearst Corporation would be fighting the ruling by a National Labor Relations Board judge that found them guilty of violating labor law when they laid off 11 people last September.
“We don’t agree with the decision that was handed down,” said Hearst. “We plan to appeal it up to the [NLRB] in Washington and then we’ll see where we go from there.”
This recent development is the latest chapter in a litigation battle between the Newspaper Guild of Albany and the Times Union. The conflict began in April 2009 when the paper’s parent company, Hearst, canceled the contract it had with the guild over proposed cuts and outsourcing of jobs. The newspaper’s subsequent proposal was rejected by members of the guild.
NLRB Judge Mark Carissimi’s decision hinged on the fact that the newspaper acted on an illegitimate impasse it declared by laying off the 11 employees. According to labor law, either party may declare an impasse but may not make decisions based on that declaration. Hearst said that his company’s appeal strategy will be to argue that the declaration of impasse was indeed legitimate.
In his decision, Carissimi wrote, “while the [TU] bargained over the layoffs it desired to make, it did not bargain over the decision to place employees on paid leave, and this action had an integral impact on the bargaining regarding the layoff criteria.” Carissimi wrote that the newspaper was spurred on by an “arbitrary deadline” it set to reduce labor costs by the end of September 2009.
Hearst was of a different opinion, stating that it was the Newspaper Guild of Albany, which represents the laid-off employees that failed to “provide a meaningful counter-proposal or response to our proposal which ultimately led to the second declaration of impasse and then the subsequent elimination of jobs that we had been discussing.”
That is untrue, according to Tim O’Brien, president of the Newspaper Guild of Albany. O’Brien said that the union was willing to make concessions on the strict seniority standards that were first put in place by the newspaper. One of the concessions in play was allowing the newspaper to disregard seniority if a case could be made for such an action.
“When Mr. Hearst talks he always ignores that,” said O’Brien. “He acts like we aren’t willing to discuss any change to the way things function and that’s just not true, we were willing to offer those kinds of concessions.”
Reporter Alan Wechsler was with the Times Union for 11 years covering a variety of beats before he was let go last year. “They had been talking about layoffs for months, so it wasn’t a great surprise when it happened,” said Wechsler.
Wechsler said that aside from the obvious financial burden, the biggest ordeal was being forced out of a job he loved while negotiations were ongoing. “I guess rather than juggle people around they just figured it was easiest to just boot out the people whose jobs they wanted to end,” said Wechsler.
Hearst said that laid-off employees were not targeted based on their income level, but rather on an intricate series of considerations. “It’s a very complex set of discussions, it’s a very complex set of criteria, and each one was vetted through many layers of people,” said Hearst. “The motivation was realizing the need to restructure and restructure wisely, not just by the numbers.”
Hearst cited the multiple awards for excellence in journalism that the Times Union has recently won as a barometer of the atmosphere in the newsroom. “If you look at our productivity as a measure of morale, I would say that, generally speaking, people are hard at work, understanding the challenges that face our industry, and they’re doing a great job.”
Veteran TU reporter Carol DeMare said that while union employees are pleased with the judge’s decision, there is no illusion that this is over. “I just think that people realized it’s going to be a long process. The side that lost in the early round has every right to appeal.”
The newspaper has 14 days to reinstate the employees unless they file an appeal, which is more than likely. However, O’Brien said he feels comfortable that the court’s decision leaves little open to alternative interpretations.
“It seems to us that appealing it is really just a case of dragging this out rather than doing the right thing,” said O’Brien. “They have the right to appeal, doesn’t mean it’s right to appeal.”
Update: Tim O’Brien, a major source for this story, wrote in about his take on the article. Below are his comments.
To the Editor:
I appreciate Daniel Fitzsimmons’ story on the judge’s finding that the Times Union twice violated labor law. Dan’s story was accurate, and he did a thorough job of finding multiple voices. He sought out a laid-off worker and talked to at least one other colleague at the Times Union, which was more of an effort than most.
I was a bit surprised, however, that he put so much emphasis on Publisher George Hearst’s statements that he would appeal and included very little information about the contents of the judge’s ruling and how it came about. I thought your readers might be interested in that information.
The charges were filed by the National Labor Relations Board’s Albany office after they investigated our complaint. A trial was held in May, and witnesses for both sides testified. The judge reviewed both the testimony and the legal briefs filed by the two sides before coming to the same conclusion we had: The Times Union broke the law. Twice.
After only two days of negotiation on layoff criteria – and before even responding to an information request we filed – the Times Union walked employees out of the building in July 2009. In his testimony, the company’s own lawyer said people were walked out to “calm the atmosphere” because other workers were asking if they would be on the layoff list and the company wanted to reassure them. The judge correctly said that action was taken to send an unmistakable message, these are the people being laid off, and to hamper our ability to negotiate over criteria.
The second legal violation occurred when the Times Union management declared an impasse in our negotiations over layoff criteria in September. Mr. Fitzsimmons quotes Mr. Hearst repeating the publisher’s favorite piece of fiction, the claim that the Guild did not provide a meaningful counterproposal.
While Mr. Fitzsimmons allowed me the opportunity to respond that this was untrue, he left out the fact that the judge himself rejected the untruth that Mr. Hearst continues to repeat to every reporter. Here’s what the judge said: “Even though the respondent (meaning the Times Union) had presented the union with a fait accompli regarding the issue of layoffs, the union was exhibiting signs of addressing the respondent’s stated need for flexibility in conducting layoffs. The next day, however, the respondent declared an impasse.”
The judge added: “The record convinces me that, rather than exploring whether the union’s change in position could serve as a basis to move the parties closer to an agreement on this issue, the Respondent declared impasse on September 11, 2009, because of its determination that the layoffs were to be conducted by the end of that month regardless of the state of negotiations.”
If your readers are interested, they can read the judge’s 30-page decision for themselves. It is on the blog attached to our website at http://www.albanyguild.org/.
Thanks for listening,
The Newspaper Guild of Albany/CWA