Striking Long Beach Post journalists say they are fighting against layoffs, corporate media consolidation, and union-busting labor law violations.

Long Beach Harbor. (Education Images / Citizens of the Planet / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Some people hate their bosses and some people love them. Perhaps your boss is a petty tyrant who inspires loathing beyond comprehension. Or maybe your boss is a kindhearted family friend who hired you as a favor and happens to be a damn good grillmaster. It could be that your boss is just someone with whom you have minimal interactions at work and who occupies zero brain space when you get home at night.

Whichever of those situations most resembles yours, though, you’d almost certainly be livid if your boss asked you to spend two weeks doing your job for free. And that’s the situation workers at the Long Beach Post were put in at the end of last year.

The Post was acquired in 2018 by Molina Healthcare scion John Molina. He offloaded the property last year, after which it was restructured as a nonprofit. During the restructuring process in November, Executive Editor Melissa Evans told the Post’s fourteen journalists and other employees that they’d be expected to come in for two weeks to continue to do their jobs on a “volunteer” basis until that nonprofit structure was up and running.

That went over about as well as you’d imagine. One of those journalists, Jason Ruiz, told Jacobin that shortly afterward, he ran into Evans — who was about to become the CEO of the new Long Beach Post nonprofit — in the office kitchen. According to Ruiz, Evans told him that she hoped he wasn’t one of the troublemakers making a big deal about that request. Ruiz reportedly told her, “I don’t work for free.” Ruiz alleges Evans responded that he should just be thankful that he had a job at all — one of many indications, he says, that the request for free labor came with a non-so-subtle implication that workers’ jobs were conditional on saying yes.

Long Beach Post employees told Jacobin that requests for unpaid days to be compensated with an equal number of paid days off later were greeted with the same message. Former editor Kat Schuster recalls Evans baldly telling her that “whoever chose not to work” during those two weeks “wouldn’t have a job anymore.” If accurate, that is wage theft. And as weak and employer-friendly as American labor law is compared to other developed nations, wage theft is illegal in the United States.

By February, Evans had rented a fancy new office space for the Post, announced plans to lay off most of the staff, and floated the possibility of offloading the newspaper to the American Journalism Project (AJP) — which, depending on who you ask, is either a “venture philanthropy” or a plain old hedge fund. The AJP’s plan would have reportedly been to merge the Long Beach Post with a few other local papers to form a streamlined “regional coverage team.”

Alarmed by this prospect, the workers sent a letter to the board that nominally runs the nonprofit — but which, they allege, turned out to be extremely deferential to Evans. Employees say they were promised that any layoffs or mergers would wait until an internal human resources investigation had been completed. The promise was broken. While the Post did hire a $ 245-an-hour HR investigator, according to employees, none of the workers spoke to this person before the layoffs went through.

The workers quickly realized that they weren’t getting anywhere as fourteen individual employees signing letters to the board and managed to organize a union at light speed. The unionization effort started on March 8. By March 13, all fourteen of them had signed union authorization cards for the Long Beach Media Guild, part of the Media Guild of the West. They sent a follow-up letter to the board on March 13 requesting voluntary recognition. Management’s response can be summed up with an image of a cartoon tumbleweed blowing across a lonesome road.

Then, on March 21, layoffs were officially announced. Editors with knowledge of the layoff list say that the previous plan had been for seven workers to lose their jobs. When the official list was announced, one person — an editor who broke with the unionization drive — had their job back, and the layoff list featured three new names. All three had been told their jobs were safe, they say. And all three were leaders in the union drive.

The entire newsroom, save the one defector, walked out of that meeting. The strike officially started the next day, and it hasn’t ended yet.

According to employees, the rent at that swanky new office space is equivalent to the salary of one of the laid-off workers. And no one seems to be using it. Every day that the striking workers come to picket, they see that the lights are off.

Evans and the board have denied engaging in union busting, stating, “Laying people off is the last thing we wanted to do, and we took every measure to avoid cutting jobs. Our financial circumstances were the only reason for these cuts.”

In a separate public letter, which accused the workers of “relentless lies and sabotage,” Evans wrote in self-defense that “management has already agreed to a union election on April 5 and has done nothing to impede the normal unionization process from happening swiftly.” But management can’t agree to a union election — only to voluntary recognition. When it comes to an election, they have no choice under labor law.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) counted some, but not all, of the votes from the union election, with the rest pending the resolution of the union’s unfair labor practices complaint about the layoffs. Of the already-counted votes, the “yes” margin in the election was 3-1. Employees believe that the currently uncounted votes are all yes votes.

Meanwhile, the Post has acquired representation from a notorious union-busting law firm. Brandon Richardson wrote about it in the Long Beach Watchdog, a new publication the striking and laid-off workers started on Substack to continue to provide local news coverage during the strike:

Evans and the nonprofit’s Board of Directors hired Orange County-based labor lawyer Daniel Adlong, who is listed as a shareholder of Ogletree Deakins, according to the National Labor Relations Board. . . . Adlong specializes in training “supervisors and managers regarding maintaining a union-free environment,” according to his online profile.

Richardson quotes John Logan, a labor and employment studies professor at San Francisco State University, who says Ogletree Deakins is one of only about half a dozen law firms that are highly specialized in maintaining those “union-free environments.” Logan said the firm is “not an ordinary management-side law firm.” Instead, he said, when you hire Ogletree Deakins, you’re essentially “planting a flag saying, ‘Unions are not welcome here.’”

The union, meanwhile, noted the irony of Evans and the board pleading poverty so “dire that it required the layoffs of nine people” while somehow finding “resources to hire costly specialists and lawyers to further push back against the staff’s unionization efforts.” The guild has even come up with an alternative budget of their own that would avoid most if not all of the layoffs — but the company seems to have very little interest in negotiating about it.

Just before the Ogletree Deakins announcement, Evans and the board floated a verbal offer to resign and hand over ownership to the newsroom — in exchange for everyone waiving their right to legal action and financial compensation for labor law violations. Those potential labor law violations ranged from the wage theft in December, to misclassifying everyone as “salary exempt” to avoid having to pay overtime, to the retaliation for union activities evident in the final layoff list.

Forfeiting the right to any kind of redress for the Post’s serial lawbreaking was a steep price, but the workers were willing to seriously consider it. They asked for a look at the firm’s financial records, making the obvious calculation that if it had already been driven into the ground then getting stuck with the costs of the paper’s last gasp would be a pretty bad deal for the workers. In short order, the board decided they’d rather pay through the nose for a union-busting law firm, and they rescinded the offer.

The good news is that the NLRB is investigating the Post’s numerous unfair labor practices. Meanwhile, the Long Beach Media Guild has received a heartening amount of support from the local community. Beyond general sympathy for workers’ rights, there’s widespread understanding that getting rid of most of these journalists and consolidating whoever’s left into a hedge fund–owned “regional coverage team” would be disastrous for Long Beach.

The general decline in local news coverage has been bad for democracy everywhere, and it would be particularly appalling for a populous city like Long Beach — whose port is among the busiest in the entire country — not to have a newsroom dedicated to covering local news. Long Beach mayor Rex Richardson, for example, came out with a statement of support, affirming that “[l]ocal news outlets play a critical role in keeping residents informed about what’s happening in their communities.”

This is, ultimately, a story about some of the worst trends in American media converging with some of the worst things about the larger balance of forces between labor and capital. The support from Richardson and other local politicians is heartening, as is the prospect of the NLRB potentially forcing Evans and the board to face real consequences for their lawbreaking. But it says a lot about how lackluster labor law enforcement is in this country, and how badly the deck is stacked against workers trying to organize for a better deal, that the road is this hard to travel.

We’re talking about a newsroom where every single eligible worker signed a union card, where the effort enjoys widespread community support, and where the illegality of management’s tactics has been on full display. Even still, the Post’s workers have been on strike for almost a month and victory hasn’t yet been achieved. If it’s this hard under these favorable circumstances, just think about how badly the deck is stacked against the rest of the working class.

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