The Providence Journal goes on trial tomorrow on charges that it retaliated against workers for union activity, made unilateral changes in working conditions, refused to provide the Guild with necessary information, and engaged in illegal bargaining tactics.
In all, the company faces 20 unfair labor practice charges brought by the National Labor Relations Board, in a trial that starts Monday at 11 a.m. in the Garrahy Judicial Complex, One Dorrance Plaza, Workers Compensation Courtroom 4(H), Providence, R.I.
This is the Journal's second trial on NLRB charges. The previous trial, in February and early March, resulted in guilty findings on every major charge and mandates for remedies that will cost the company millions of dollars.
While the February trial focused on economic and bargaining issues, next week's proceedings will expose the human toll of the Journal's union-busting campaign. The judge will hear testimony about a veteran reporter demoted to "night cops" -- a beginner's beat with horrible work hours -- in retaliation for union activity; an employee who was fired retroactively as he prepared to return from medical leave; and two people whose involuntary transfer to a different department cost them their seniority.
Guild members are welcome to attend the trial, expected to last about three days. Daily reports will appear on www.journalontrial.org and will be distributed in the building.
Meanwhile, the company has asked to meet with Guild negotiators after the trial, at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, to talk about procedures for future off-the-record talks. The Guild regards this request to "negotiate about negotiations" as a positive move. In past meetings, the company has merely put its proposals on the table and said, "Take it or leave it." This request to work out procedural details (such as who will attend bargaining sessions) hints at a possible willingness to engage in the give-and-take of true negotiations -- for the first time in years.
Here's a summary of the major charges in this week's trial:
Retaliation -- real and threatened
The NLRB charges that the company retaliated against veteran reporter Karen Ziner, by assigning her to night cops -- working 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday -- after she participated in "concerted activities" and after she filed a complaint against the Journal with the Human Rights Commission.
The "concerted activities" involved a petition protesting the Journal's decision to remove Ziner from a crime story after one of the story's subjects complained -- even though the Journal acknowledged that her coverage was fair and accurate. Ziner's human rights complaint alleged that the Journal violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because it refused to allow her to use taxi vouchers outside Providence when she was temporarily unable to drive.
The Journal changed the duties of copy editors in the features department in retaliation for their successful grievance against the company. An arbitrator ruled that the Journal had wrongfully withheld "small grid" differentials that have always been awarded to people who work in a higher classification than their usual job. After the ruling, the company changed the copy editors' duties so that they could no longer collect the "small grid" payments. This also was a unilateral change in working conditions.
The company also faces a charge that Carol Young, deputy executive editor, "threatened employees with the loss of career opportunities because of the employees' union activities." The charge stems from a comment that Young made to a Guild member last April. The Guild member mentioned to Young that one of the two-year interns had helped distribute Guild fliers at a Brown University event. Young is alleged to have then said: "Thanks for ruining his career!"
Unilateral changes in working conditions
The company fired an employee who wanted to return from medical leave. Michael Monti, an advertising promotion specialist, went on medical leave in November 1999. In July 2001, Monti notified the company that he was ready to return from leave. The company responded with a letter informing Monti that he had been terminated retroactive to November 2000. This was a dramatic change in the Journal's previous policies on medical leave.
The company faces three charges for transferring two employees from the promotion department, which is part of the advertising unit, to the visuals department, which is part of the news unit. The contract prohibits the involuntary transfer of employees between the news and advertising units. The company also failed to follow the contract rules regarding the posting and filling of positions. The transfer of two people from the advertising unit amounted to a layoff in advertising unit -- and the company did not follow the contract's provisions on layoffs. As a result of the transfer, the two employees lost their seniority.
In November, 2001, the company refused to pay an editorial assistant in the features department the "small grid" differential that she was entitled to for taking over the duties of a departmental assistant, a higher classification.
In January 2002, the company changed its policy on use of the company credit card, saying that any charges the company thinks may be personal will be deducted from the employee's paycheck. In the past it had been understood that there was no penalty for accidental use of the company card for personal items.
Denial of legitimate information requests
The Guild requested information about: payroll data, particularly discrepancies regarding merit pay, pay grade, job title and experience steps; the company's failure make 401(k) payments for certain employees; the names of part-time employees who participate in the 401(k) plan; and details about any case since 1995 in which an employee was required to return to work over the objections of the employee's physician. The NLRB deemed this information necessary for the union to meet its duties to members, and alleges that the company had an obligation to provide it.
Illegal bargaining tactics
The NLRB charges that the company made a regressive wage proposal -- an illegal bargaining move -- when it took its wage offer for 2002 off the table, saying that there was a wage freeze for all Belo employees.
In October and November 2001, the company refused to bargain over the effects of its buyout program, such as the reassignment of the remaining staffers.
A few days before the February NLRB trial, the company made a revised contract proposal. The Guild replied with an invitation to bargain over it, which the company rejected. The NLRB alleges that the company's actions ran afoul of the law because it refused to bargain and because it required the union to drop all unfair-labor-practice charges before negotiations could begin. In addition, because the company sent its proposal to all Guild members, the NLR B has charged it with "direct dealing," an illegal attempt to bypass the union and negotiate directly with the employees it represents.
Daily trial reports
TNG/CWA Local 31041
270 Westmister St., Providence, Rhode Island 02903
401-421-9466 | Fax: 401-421-9495