The labor union representing workers at the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming has accused the paper and parent company Lee Enterprises of retaliating against pro-union employees to chill organizing efforts in Lee’s other newsrooms.
The Communications Workers of America filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday. The union says the company engaged in unfair labor practices when it laid off features editor Elise Schmelzer and suspended politics reporter Arno Rosenfeld.
“I think it was a retaliatory tactic ― toward us and toward Elise specifically,” said a source in the Star-Tribune newsroom who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “It’s fair to say they’re going to war with us.”
The charges claim that Schmelzer ― a manager who was not a member of the union ― was let go “due to her support for the recently certified union,” and that “other pro-union, non-bargaining unit employees were also terminated.”
The charges did not elaborate on the other terminations.
Iowa-based Lee Enterprises is a publicly traded company that owns more than 40 daily newspapers around the country. The Star-Tribune became the first newsroom to unionize under Lee’s ownership when nonmanagement employees voted to join a CWA local in February.
A month later, another Lee-owned paper, the Missoula Independent in Montana, followed the Star-Tribune’s lead and filed a petition to try and form a union as well.
Schmelzer, whom colleagues said was beloved in the newsroom, had been recently named 2017 Wyoming Young Journalist of the Year. The paper laid her off last Wednesday for what it claimed were financial reasons. But the move came two days before the Missoula Independent was scheduled to hold its union vote.
The next day, the company suspended Rosenfeld with pay after he wrote an email to colleagues informing them that Schmelzer had been let go. It was a “straightforward email to my colleagues,” he told HuffPost, which has reviewed the email. His suspension was lifted on Tuesday.
Lee Enterprises and the publisher of the Casper Star-Tribune declined to comment when reached by email. Schmelzer also declined to comment.
Multiple staffers took the dismissal and suspension as a threat. On Thursday, the Star-Tribune bargaining unit, which calls itself the Casper News Guild, released a statement calling the decision to dismiss Schmelzer “appalling and short-sighted.”
“While Lee Enterprises officials may believe that taking punitive action against non-union members at the Star-Tribune will discourage employees across the company’s many newspapers from organizing, their apparently capricious actions in Casper serve only to highlight the need for staff to stand up for their rights,” the statement said.
Part of the Star-Tribune staff’s stated reason for unionizing was “to strengthen local control over Wyoming’s largest media organization.”
Lee Enterprises, meanwhile, has consistently reduced the number of full-time employees over the last decade as part of a strategy to reduce its hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. The cost-cutting has helped make it profitable ― earlier this year, the company reported earnings of $35.3 million for the fiscal quarter ending in December.
In the lead-up to the union vote in Casper, management painted an optimistic picture of the Star-Tribune’s finances, according to multiple sources.
“We were told multiple times during union-busting meetings that there were no layoffs coming and, in fact, that we were going to invest in our newsroom,” said one staffer.
So even if Schmelzer’s dismissal were financially motivated, the guild’s statement said, earlier promises from management now appear “to be either calculated lies told to discourage unionization, or they suggest incompetence in the financial management of the newspaper.”
Rosenfeld told HuffPost, “It’s hard to see how company officials could think their actions in Casper won’t have a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists at other Lee papers looking to exercise their legal right to collectively bargain.”
So far, any attempt to chill organizing efforts hasn’t worked. On Friday, the Missoula Independent went ahead and voted unanimously to form a union.
“We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to negotiate a contract,” said Derek Brouwer of the Missoula Independent.
But, he added, “It certainly seems like the company is not happy with the organizing movement that is underway.”