A Newspaper Union Clash Could Have Bigger Implications For Worker Rights In Biden Era

The San Francisco Chronicle threatened a copy editor for emailing managers about union matters. Her union says the paper broke the law.
The National Labor Relations Board may be taking another look at company policies that forbid workers from using work email for union purposes.
The National Labor Relations Board may be taking another look at company policies that forbid workers from using work email for union purposes.
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

As staffers were bargaining with the San Francisco Chronicle late last year, Caroline Grannan, a copy editor and chair of the newsroom’s union, emailed an update on contract talks to dozens of managers. A remodeling of the newsroom had left staffers without public bulletin boards, Grannan said in a note from her personal email account, and she wanted everyone to know where negotiations stood.

A human resources executive responded with an email of her own, telling Grannan not to contact managers about union matters, and to go straight to HR. Undeterred, Grannan sent another bargaining update to managers’ work email accounts a few weeks later. Again, HR told her to knock it off, and warned that she was misusing company email.

“You are in violation of our email use policy by sending non-work emails to company email accounts,” the HR executive, Renee Peterson, told Grannan in a January note. She underlined the next part for emphasis: “This is your last and final reminder to cease these types of communications.”

The series of reprimands Grannan received are now the subject of an unfair labor practice charge that her union, the Pacific Media Workers Guild, filed earlier this month with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that referees collective bargaining in the private sector.

“I felt I had a legal right under the [National Labor Relations Act] to do it,” Grannan said of the emails. “I don’t think they have a right to tell me who I can speak to when not in my Chronicle role.”

The union maintains that the paper cannot stop Grannan from discussing union issues with managers. The union also argues the Chronicle has targeted a union activist with a communications policy ― don’t use work email for union (“non-work”) issues ― that it believes to be illegal. Under board procedures, NLRB officials would now look into the union’s charge to determine if there’s merit, then possibly pursue a case against the paper.

“The Chronicle has a long history of promoting free speech. This level of stifling free speech seems inconsistent, to put it mildly.”

- Caroline Grannan

A Hearst spokesperson said in an email that the company had not received the charge yet, and that “as a matter of practice we do not comment on pending litigation.”

On a practical level, Grannan says it’s absurd that the paper would tell her not to contact management about union matters, since she sometimes has to explain to managers what staffers’ rights are under the contract. She also argued that a newspaper should not be telling employees who they can talk to, on basic free speech grounds.

“We are in the information business,” she said. “The Chronicle has a long history of promoting free speech. This level of stifling free speech seems inconsistent, to put it mildly.”

Because she was chastised for discussing union matters over work email, Grannan’s case involves a tricky part of labor law that changed during the presidencies of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and may change again under Joe Biden.

Before the Obama years, employers had wide latitude to restrict their employees’ use of work email systems. They could legally tell workers not to use the systems for collective bargaining purposes, as long as they enforced such a policy for all non-work issues. But in 2014, a Democratic majority at the labor board ruled that employers could not forbid the use of email for union activity, even if they barred workers from using it for personal matters, too.

The Purple Communications decision was one of the most significant worker-friendly board rulings of its time, and a Republican majority during the Trump years overturned it just a few years later. In a 2019 case involving Caesars Entertainment, the more conservative board restored the previous reading of the law, saying there was “no statutory right to use employer equipment, including IT resources,” for collective bargaining.

But that may soon change again, with a Democratic majority at the board and an aggressive general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo. Abruzzo has unveiled a list of past board rulings she is likely to go after, on the grounds that they unfairly tilt the playing field toward employers. That list includes the Caesars decision.

Abruzzo directed NLRB officials to send her any cases that may involve that ruling, and she went beyond email to include “Discord, Slack, Groupme, or other employer communication systems.” Grannan says she was also reprimanded for using Slack to tell managers that union members needed clarity on merit raises.

An unfair labor practice charge like the one at the Chronicle could be just the vehicle for a precedent-setting case.

“It’s only union talk that is being subjected to this kind of scrutiny and discipline.”

- Susan Garea, lawyer for the union

Grannan’s case is a little complicated because she sent the emails from her personal email account to managers’ work addresses. But the company policy as stated in Peterson’s note reprimanding Grannan — she can’t send “non-work emails to company email accounts” — seems to go straight to the questions surrounding Purple Communications.

Like any modern newsroom, the Chronicle hosts all kinds of non-work banter over its communications systems, Grannan said. She notes that the Chronicle-funded Slack includes channels that have nothing to do with the journalism they produce, like a dogs channel and a parents channel. Grannan said no one seems to get in trouble for sharing a recipe over the company’s IT systems.

Susan Garea, a lawyer for the union, argues that the Chronicle ran afoul of the law even according to the Trump-era ruling, because the company hasn’t chided other workers for non-work communiques the way it has with Grannan and her union emails.

“It’s only union talk that is being subjected to this kind of scrutiny and discipline,” Garea said.

The Chronicle and the union have still not settled on a new contract. Michael Cabanatuan, a general assignment and breaking news reporter at the paper, said the company’s tough stance with Grannan squares with its stance at the bargaining table.

“They just seem to be taking a much more hostile approach this time,” he said.

Cabanatuan said the company has asked to change the contract so that the Chronicle becomes what’s known as an “open shop,” in which staff covered under the contract would not be required to pay fees for union representation. Such clauses can weaken a union and reduce membership over time, as some workers forgo paying dues despite reaping the benefits.

Grannan said it’s useful for middle managers to know the details of what’s happening at the bargaining table, even if they aren’t sympathetic to the union. She suspects many of them don’t have a clear picture of the talks, which is why she sent those emails in the first place. She’s confident she’ll still be able to send updates once the case runs its course.

“I can’t imagine that they think this would hold up,” she said.

CORRECTION: This story originally stated that the Chronicle’s Slack system includes a channel devoted to moms. In fact, the channel is called “noms,” and it’s about food. There is, however, a separate, non-gendered channel devoted to parenting.

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