Updated 10:41 p.m.
The union representing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom staffers wants Publisher and Editor-in-Chief JR Block barred from the paper’s North Shore office after the guild said Block “went berserk in the newsroom” on Saturday night.
On Monday, the Guild asked Post-Gazette executives to temporarily deactivate Block’s access card and to search him for weapons if he has to be in the building, said Mike Fuoco, president of The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents some 150 newsroom employees.
Photos and videos of the Saturday encounter were provided to the company in support of the request, he said, adding that management led him to believe Block’s access would be restricted, but as of Tuesday afternoon it had not.
Around 10 p.m. Saturday, Block arrived at the newsroom with his child and went “berserk,” “screaming at the top of his lungs, raving like a lunatic and repeatedly and loudly slapping the Guild bulletin board with his hand” while “lamenting the several hundred million dollars he said the Blocks have lost on the Post-Gazette over the years,” Jonathan D. Silver, the Guild’s unit chairman, recapped in an email to Guild members that was subsequently sent to The Incline.
“What he did was not eccentric. It wasn’t frustration. It was irrational,” Fuoco said of Block. “(…) He manhandled his minor child and terrorized (the child) and traumatized the newsroom. (…) This is a crisis.”
Block’s twin brother, Allan Block — who is chairman of Block Communications, Inc., which owns the paper — did not dispute that the encounter occurred but said the publisher’s conduct was misinterpreted by those present. A statement from Allan Block sent to The Incline on Tuesday evening reads:
The frustration over financial and other challenges in the newspaper industry led to an unfortunate exchange with employees of which I have been made aware.
Block Communications regrets if anyone present may have misconstrued what occurred as anything other than an indication of strong concern and support for the legacy and future of the Post-Gazette.
We want the entire staff to know that we will continue to value all of our employees and their contributions to the PG.
Guild members concerned for their safety were given the option of working from home this week. Fuoco said five employees, none of whom were present during Saturday’s encounter, took advantage of the offer on Tuesday. About 15 employees were working Saturday night.
Silver’s email said Block arrived at the office with his pre-teen child around 10 p.m. Saturday after having dinner Downtown at the Duquesne Club.
“He apparently wanted to force (his child) to have (a) picture taken in front of the ‘Shame on the Blocks!’ sign. His stated goal was to have the picture published on our front page. Block ranted about the sign and how its sentiment is now part of the family’s legacy,” the email states.
The sign, which was posted to a Guild bulletin board in the newsroom in December, indirectly references the company’s refusal to cover a hike in health care costs for employees amid ongoing contract negotiations and the 13 years newsroom employees have worked without a raise.
The email said Block “criticized the Guild for trying to take money out of the family’s pockets,” “threatened to fire various managers” and threatened to “shut down the paper if the ‘goddamn Guild’ did not remove the sign by Monday or Tuesday.”
The sign remained in place as of Tuesday afternoon, Fuoco said.
On Saturday, Fuoco was alerted by staffers who were present during the incident and was summoned there with Silver. Fuoco said they arrived soon after. According to Fuoco and Silver’s email, Block was “isolated” and calmed by newsroom managers while his child was comforted.
Fuoco said police were not involved but added, “I wish the police would have been called.” He continued: “I think everybody was so stunned by what was happening. It seemed surreal, and a manager and a Guild member got (his child) out of harm’s way.”
Reached for comment Tuesday, Deb Sacco, Block’s assistant, said, “I wasn’t here — I have no firsthand knowledge of it and there is no comment at this time,” before hanging up.
The paper is losing money and engaged in protracted contract negotiations with the Guild, with newsroom employees working without a new contract since March 2017.
The Guild filed an unfair labor complaint against family-owned BCI last year alleging the company’s refusal to cover a hike in health care contributions for employees in the midst of contract negotiations amounted to a violation of labor law. The National Labor Relations Board agreed and so did an administrative law judge. BCI has appealed that decision.
Fuoco, an enterprise reporter at the paper, said neither contract negotiations nor the unfair labor case have bearing on this discussion or the Guild’s response to what happened Saturday.
Fuoco called Allan Block’s version of events revisionist and “absurd” and said he wants the company to take the same steps it would if any employee had conducted themselves in such a manner.
“If I did this I would be fired pending a mental health evaluation and drug and alcohol evaluations. And that’s what we’re asking for. We want him to get the help he needs, and we want him to be safe and our members to be safe and his child to be safe,” Fuoco said.
“He doesn’t get a free pass because he owns the place.”
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said: “Negotiations do get testy but usually not so personal. Assuming the accounts are close to right, this speaks to the difficulty, verging on desperation, of the business (…). Plus family owners who have stayed as managers may bring an extra dose of emotion.”
Edmonds concluded, “That said, I don’t think the owner is going to get barred from the building.”
The Post-Gazette has seen no shortage of controversy in recent years, some of it owing to perceptions of JR Block’s support for Donald Trump, followed by disputes over editorial content, in-house criticism of the editorial page’s rightward trajectory, the high-profile firing of a cartoonist with liberal, anti-Trump leanings and the replacement of that cartoonist with a decidedly conservative and, critics argue, anti-woman successor.
Across the state, the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia recently delivered a unanimous vote of no-confidence in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s publisher.
But Bernie Lunzer, president of The NewsGuild-CWA’s national chapter, said of the Post-Gazette, “All I can say is that this is a highly unusual situation — nothing common about it.”