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A More Anxious Weekly

"ANXIETY IS HEALTHY. BUT IT SHOULDN'T LAST so long that it becomes destructive," David Schneiderman, the president of Village Voice Media, which owns the L.A. Weekly, told reporter RJ Smith in an article that Los Angeles Magazine ran on the Weekly this April.

When Schneiderman's words appeared in print, anxiety was reaching a fever pitch in the Weekly's display-advertising department. One veteran rep had been let go. Others were concerned when their accounts were transferred to other reps. Worst of all, Schneiderman had fired longtime Weekly president and publisher Mike Sigman, and Sigman's successor was not in place yet. A number of reps had filed grievances with the human-resources director, but Schneiderman seemed unwilling to address their concerns. (Schneiderman did not return my phone call seeking his side of the story.)

It was at that point that a clear majority of the reps -- about 15 out of 20 -- petitioned to join the union that has represented the editorial, production and operations employees of the Weekly since 1989, Local 201 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM).

Last Friday, after a bitter campaign that stunned many longtime Weekly workers, employees in advertising and promotions rejected the union by a 15-13 vote. The company's campaign came straight from the pages of Union Avoidance 101. An anti-union law firm was hired as a consultant. The union was subjected to charges more dubious than some of the claims made in our personal ads. The company managed to expand the electorate to include two departments -- classified ads and promotions -- that had not sought to be unionized.

Organizing drive defeated; dog bites man. But indulge me. This story matters. What happened here is an affront to everything the Weekly has stood for editorially, and to the model of labor relations that has actually existed, quite successfully, at the Weekly for the past dozen years.

THE VERY FACT THAT THERE WAS A NATIONAL Labor Relations Board election at all was a departure from past Weekly practice. In 1989, when Weekly editorial staffers sought to form a union, they hooked up with the Machinists, the main union in the soon-to-be-decimated aerospace industry, with a reputation as one of the most progressive unions around. In short order, the Machinists district lodge sent a representative, bearing the signatures of a clear majority of editorial employees requesting union recognition, to meet with the Weekly's new publisher, Gary Horowitz. As Horowitz recalls it, the representative wanted to set a date for an election, but Horowitz would have none of it. "Let's skip that," Horowitz said. "You're recognized. Let's go straight into negotiations."

Horowitz's response upset the Weekly's founder and president, Jay Levin, who failed to win board approval to fire Horowitz. It was Levin's somewhat manic managing that had provided the impetus for editorial to organize in the first place. Levin has mellowed over the years, but in the late '80s, having put in a decade as the paper's first editor and publisher, he was prey to impulses, not all of them good. "The precipitating event for unionization was when Jay fired Craig Lee on his answering machine," one longtime staffer recalls. "Craig was the music editor, a fixture at the paper, and he was sick at the time."

Mike Sigman succeeded Horowitz as publisher, and company and union settled in for an amicable relationship. In 1995, Sigman shot down an attempt by advertising reps to unionize. "David [Schneiderman] pressured Mike to keep advertising out," one employee recalls, "and Mike did, though partly by meeting a number of the sales reps' demands. Mike just wanted everyone to be happy." On the whole, the Weekly in the Sigman years was one happy and uneventful family when it came to labor relations. Since many alternative journalists almost strive to be aggrieved, this was really quite remarkable. Sue Horton, the Weekly's editor from 1994 to 2000, recalls bargaining sessions that were "not even a little bit contentious. If the union would ask for an extra personal day for an employee with seniority, Mike would say, 'How about an extra day for every employee?'"

During the Sigman years, the public face of the paper changed, too. From the outside and the inside both, then, the Weekly was a union paper. And then, suddenly, on the inside, it wasn't.

BETH SESTANOVICH TOOK THE REINS AS publisher of the Weekly on June 3 and walked right into a labor-management dispute not at all of her own making. After settling in for a decent interval, Sestanovich announced that the reps' request for unionization would go to a vote.

"I'd never worked at a union environment," Sestanovich told me the Monday after the union election. "I'd worked at IBM and the L.A. Times and carsdirect.com, where I was vice president for human resources." Not only were none of these unionized companies, but much of the Weekly's union history was a mystery to her as well.

She takes credit, though, for two crucial decisions. It was she, and not Schneiderman, she insists, who rejected the request for union recognition by card check. "I know for a fact that some people in advertising didn't want the union," she says. "I'm for freedom of choice. Let's talk about the 15 people who didn't vote for the union. Suppose I said, 'You don't get a choice; we'll just go with what this group has asked for.' Part of living in a democracy is making a choice. You have a right to hear both sides of the argument."

The second decision was to hire the services of an employment-law firm she had worked with at the non-union carsdirect.com. "This was a union environment, which was new [to me]; I told them I'd need some legal assistance." And so she hired the firm of Littler Mendelson.

Littler Mendelson is known as an anti-union firm, so much so that when I called two attorneys who represented unions, they both blurted out, "Oh, you mean, 'Hitler, Mussolini.'"

Here's how Littler Mendelson handled the Weekly. First, the electorate was expanded way beyond the group petitioning for representation, adding the classified-ad reps and the promotions department. Management claimed it was just going back to the original 1995 group, but it is clear to me that they were included for the express purpose of their voting No. (The staffers at the Machinists lodge could have contested these expansions -- the Weekly writers who are officers of the local urged them to -- but they did not.)

Second, the company convened a mandatory meeting with all the workers eligible to vote. "I wanted people to have the facts," says Sestanovich. "People wanted to hear what the company had to say."

Third, in communiqués to workers, the company made a series of misleading, false and ridiculous claims. Prospective voters were reminded of all the benefits they already received. The fact that virtually every single one of these benefits emerged from union-management negotiations is, of course, nowhere mentioned. Other management materials depicted the union as alien intruders: "The IAM officers and representatives are an unknown," one leaflet read. "They want your money in the form of dues in order to support their business."

Some of the other management charges wafted in from cloud-cuckoo land. One cautioned prospective members that if they run afoul of union policies, they "are subject to internal union charges, trials and fines."

Finally, rounding out the repertoire, there was what the union attorney called borderline stuff -- job transfers, veiled threats, that sort of thing. One presumably pro-union employee was promoted to a management position (and hence out of the voting pool) that union backers insist isn't really at management level at all. Another presumably anti-union employee was leaving town for a new job; the union contested her right to vote, and management announced just before the election that she'd be paid to stay on another two weeks. The company also asserted that ad reps might lose what they'd earned under a union.

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE VOTE, THE WEEKLY is a company with its nerves on edge. Ad reps don't speak to other ad reps; friends avoid friends.

A number of former Weekly officials see Schneiderman's hand in the decision to fight the union. "In his heart of hearts, he really dislikes unions," says one. "At The Voice, he's had decent relations with unions after the contracts are in place, but he's always been extremely aggressive during contract time; he loves playing the wild man." Says another, "David would talk with glee about how he tricked the union. He loved talking about how he extracted this or that from them."

Labor relations at The Voice have long been contentious (this year, the paper came within 24 hours of a strike). "At The Voice," says one former Weekly executive, "there's always been this clear divide between management and labor. Now that's been brought to the West Coast. The new publisher had no sense of what things had been like, and David's been pushing from the other end."

But why the push? Schneiderman heads a privately owned corporation whose owners shelled out an estimated $150 million at the height of the boom for this seven-paper chain. Then the downturn came; 9/11 wreaked havoc with the economy of southern Manhattan -- the neighborhood and significant ad base of The Voice. "He really wants to send a message to every paper in the chain," says one longtime associate. "And if driving this home means bringing the culture of The Voice out here, so be it."

Fighting tooth and nail against the 15 pro-union workers runs contrary to everything the paper has stood for. By the measure of the stories we normally run, this is all small potatoes, I know. But for those of us, readers and staffers, who love the Weekly, it's a very big deal.


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