An administrative law judge from the National Labor Relations Board handed journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a major victory Thursday by ruling the newspaper didn’t negotiate in good faith, illegally imposed working conditions and unlawfully surveilled workers engaged in union activities.
Geoffrey Carter, who heard the case last fall, ordered the newspaper to resume bargaining with the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh within 15 days of the union requesting it. He also ordered the company to rescind the unilateral working conditions it had imposed in 2020, and restore the union’s previous contract, which expired in 2017.
Carter further ordered the company to “make its employees whole for any loss of earnings and other benefits that resulted from its unlawful unilateral changes.” Union officials had estimated at one point that the company’s bill could be about $4 million.
Guild President Zack Tanner said the decision was “the biggest ruling” in the union’s nearly 89-year history. But it does not immediately bring an end to a strike that began Oct. 18, 2022. Tanner said the labor action, involving more than 100 Post-Gazette workers, is “the leverage the unions need to get the ruling enforced.”
Striking newsroom workers have been demanding that the Post-Gazette rescind the illegally imposed unilateral working conditions, restore the status quo set by the terms of the 2014-17 contract, and return to the table to bargain in good faith for a new contract.
“It puts us closer to victory than we’ve been since 2017, let alone since the start of the strike,” he said, “But the ruling is not in place yet, and the ruling doesn’t change the health care situation of the other unions. That was one of our demands when we walked out.”
Guild attorney Joe Pass said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.
“I thought we had a very good case going in, and the evidence was overwhelming,” he said. “Obviously the [company] never ever intended to come to an agreement unless it was under their terms and their terms only.”
Pass said he expects the company to appeal the ruling to the five-member National Labor Relations Board. After an NLRB ruling, either party can then appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, or the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The NLRB has no power to enforce its ruling, Pass added. That power is held by appellate courts.
A spokesperson for the Post-Gazette did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and the story was first published on its news website at 10:02 p.m. Thursday. It noted, “A Post-Gazette spokeswoman issued a statement saying, ‘We strongly disagree with the administrative law judge’s decision and will appeal the decision to the NLRB in Washington and, if necessary, to the Court of Appeals.’ “
The company has until Feb. 23 to file an appeal.
In his 50-page ruling, Carter detailed various ways that he found the company in violation of federal labor law.
He said the company prematurely declared an impasse to contract negotiations and presented proposals that, “viewed as a whole, evidence an intent not to reach an agreement.” These include provisions that would have allowed the company to “unilaterally encroach” on the union’s jurisdiction and have “unilateral control” over employee pay, as well as the ability to unilaterally “alter or scale back” employee health care, dental, vision and life insurance plans.
“Such proposals are at odds with the basic concept of a collective-bargaining agreement,” Carter wrote.
The judge added in a footnote that he “would be remiss” if he didn’t point out that there was “no evidence” that the company offered any “meaningful economic concessions or benefits” to employees in exchange for the “broad discretion” that the company proposed.
Carter also found fault with the company’s next move after illegally declaring an impasse in negotiations in summer 2020. He said the company imposing working conditions that differed from its “last, best and final offer” to the union was “inherently contradictory.”
“By implementing new terms, [the newspaper] demonstrated that it had room to move from what it characterized as its last, best and final offer on June 12, 2020, and thus demonstrated that the parties were not at impasse,” he wrote.
Carter disagreed with charges alleging the company unlawfully surveilled employees on Sept. 25, 2020, while they engaged in union activities, or created the impression among employees that their union activities were under surveillance. He said the public nature of the union rally outside the company’s North Shore newsroom could have “proved to be newsworthy” enough that it was “not out of the ordinary” for manager Arturo Fernandez to take photographs. He recommended those allegations be dismissed.
But he added that security guards appearing to take photos of employees across the street from publisher John Block’s home during Oct. 24 and 31, 2020, rallies did violate the law by “creating an impression among its employees that their union activities were under surveillance.”
Find the judge’s decision and more at https://www.nlrb.gov/case/06-CA-269346.
The Union Progress’ Bob Batz Jr. contributed.