The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, August 04, 2000

Newspaper struggle continues after appeals court wallop

By The Building Tradesman

By Michael McBride
Locked-out Detroit News Reporter

The boycott of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press will continue as the unions involved in the five-year-old labor dispute appeal a major federal court ruling.

On July 7, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Detroit's two daily newspapers and their joint-operating agency, Detroit Newspapers, did not commit unfair labor practices that caused and prolonged a strike and subsequent "lock out."

The ruling means the papers have escaped a massive back-pay liability that would have - if the judges had not reversed previous findings - forced them to take all the workers still locked out (about 600) back to work. Had the court not reversed findings by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the papers would have been forced to make every employee that struck the papers "whole" for lost wages and benefits from the date the unions ended the strike (February 1997) until they were given their job back.

The decision stunned workers, their unions and the labor community because it reversed a 1997 ruling by an administrative law judge that the papers had bargained in bad faith and had illegally imposed some conditions on its unionized employees. That 1997 ruling was later upheld by the full NLRB board in Washington, D.C., in a 5-0 vote that included three Democratic appointees and two Republican appointees.

The three federal judges, all appointees of former President Ronald Reagan, effectively wiped out five years of investigations, hearings, litigation and findings by the unions and the NLRB. The original case against the newspapers lasted more than seven months, involving dozens of witnesses and covering more than 3,000 pages of testimony.

The six unions involved in the dispute likely will appeal the ruling to the full court of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. If rejected, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court also is a possibility.

Bob Ourlian, a locked-out reporter of the Detroit News and former bargaining committee member of the Newspaper Guild Local 22, was stunned at the findings of the three federal judges in Washington, D.C. The opinion written by the judges bears little resemblance to the reality of the bargaining that took place in early 1995.

"This is how innocent people end up on death row," said Ourlian. "A predisposed judge searches the record for snippets of facts that bear out his or her bias. Selectively, he or she assembles these facts from more than 3,000 pages of testimony into a four-page rehash and paints the company as the good guy bearing armloads of proposals; the union as resistant and unyielding."

The newspapers were found guilty on more than a dozen charges back in 1997 by administrative law judge Thomas Wilks. The majority of Wilks' findings were later upheld by the full NLRB board in Washington, but only three of the charges were considered legally sufficient to have caused the strike that started on July 13, 1995.

Those three charges included the newspapers refusal to engage in a second-round of "joint bargaining" on all outstanding economic issues, the imposition of a "merit pay" system on Newspaper Guild employees at the Detroit News and the unilateral change in the jurisdiction of the Detroit Typographical Union.

While the unions and the NLRB chart a new legal course for the on-going dispute at the papers, bargaining for new contracts could resume soon. Shortly after the federal court ruling, the newspapers sent a letter requesting a bargaining session, but also indicating that they were withdrawing all previous proposals off the table.