Newsroom union files unfair labor complaint against Post-Gazette after publisher went ‘berserk’

Post-Gazette employees said the Saturday incident included classist insults and threats of firings.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette office on the North Shore.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette office on the North Shore.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

When Post-Gazette Publisher JR Block “went berserk in the newsroom” on Saturday night, newsroom employees say he threatened to fire managers and “burn the place down,” directed classist insults at a staffer, and left his 12-year-old “visibly shaking and crying.”

Four written eyewitness accounts released by The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh on Wednesday provide new details of an episode that has shaken the media institution and led to calls for Block to be barred from the building.

Block returned to the newsroom for the first time since the episode on Wednesday afternoon, according to Guild President and PG enterprise reporter Mike Fuoco.

Also Wednesday, the Guild filed an unfair labor complaint against their employer with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging Block’s behavior amounted to an attempt to intimidate union employees by “threatening employees with shop closure or job loss unless they cease engaging in union or other protected concerted activity.”

The Guild, which represents some 150 Post-Gazette newsroom employees, said it chose to release the eyewitness accounts in an attempt to refute the company’s portrayal of the episode.

In a statement given to The Incline on Tuesday, Allan Block — who is JR Block’s twin and the chairman of Block Communications, Inc., which owns the paper — characterized the incident as an “unfortunate exchange” and said the family-owned company “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.”

But the accounts from the newsroom describe a nearly 30-minute encounter that left employees fearful and concerned and which has since renewed widespread scrutiny of the paper and its increasingly embattled ownership.

A message left with a company spokesperson was not immediately responded to on Wednesday.

Guild members described Block as menacing, chaotic and apparently inebriated. They also describe Block’s 12-year-old child, who was present, as visibly traumatized by the incident.

Marianne Mizera, a web editor at the Post-Gazette and Guild member, wrote that Block arrived at the paper’s North Shore office building around 9:50 p.m. Saturday and was let into the building by newsroom manager Tim McDonough.

Mizera recalled Block stepping off the elevator and walking “briskly — in a slightly stumbling, awkward manner” through the newsroom toward the “web hub” area where she said he immediately began “yelling about various topics, pointing and waving his finger repeatedly up in the air and swinging his arms.”

“He was very angry and irate,” Mizera writes. “The entire newsroom could hear his voice.” As many as 15 people were working Saturday night, Fuoco said.

On Sunday, the Guild sent an email to its members describing the incident. That email was subsequently forwarded to The Incline.

Mizera echoed that account and said after his arrival Block quickly focused his attention on a sign hung on the Guild’s designated newsroom bulletin board. The sign reads “Shame on the Blocks!” — an indirect swipe at the company’s refusal to cover a hike in health care costs for employees amid ongoing contract negotiations, the 13 years newsroom employees have worked without a raise, and the fact that Post-Gazette newsroom employees have worked without a new contract since March 2017.

“It was clear he was intoxicated,” Mizera recalled, adding that Block continued shouting while waiting for Managing Editor Sally Stapleton to arrive after he demanded that she be called into work. A message left for Stapleton by The Incline this week was not returned.

While waiting for Stapleton, Block reportedly shouted that he wanted a picture of himself and his child taken in front of the Guild sign and demanded it run on the “front page of tomorrow’s paper,” Mizera recounted.

Mizera said Block forcefully grabbed the child’s forearm, pulling the child into the picture while the child screamed, “‘Please, please, Daddy, no!’ multiple times.”

Fuoco said police weren’t called, adding, “I think everybody was so stunned by what was happening. It seemed surreal (…).”

Mizera said she was able to separate Block’s child from him, at which point she took the child to a cafeteria area for water and a place to sit.

In a separate written account released by the Guild, breaking news reporter Andrew Goldstein said of the child, “She was screaming that she didn’t want to [take the photo], crying hysterically and red-faced. I felt terrible about what I was watching.”

Carl Remensky of the sports desk added that when the child managed to break away, Block “remained standing at the bulletin board, shouting and slapping the ‘Shame’ poster.”

Goldstein recalled Block ripping a cellphone from the child’s hand “because he thought she was trying to call her mother.”

Goldstein continued: “He was screaming in (the child’s) face about the Block family legacy: ‘Do you want to be high class or low class? You’re a Block, you’re one of us! You have to learn how to lead!’ (The child) was shaking and saying that she didn’t want to.” Mizera claims that at this point Block was “firmly jabb(ing) his finger into (the child’s) shoulder.”

Block also bemoaned the money he said the Block family has lost on the Post-Gazette over the years, according to multiple sources.

Alex Miller, a paginator at the paper and author of one of the Guild’s first-person accounts, wrote, “He said he’d lost $300 million on the newspaper, and then he said — I think to McDonough — ‘Do you know how much money $300 million dollars is?’ Followed by, ‘No, of course you wouldn’t.'”

The accounts say Block then directed his ire at Guild leadership, former executive editor David Shribman — who retired suddenly late last year — and newsroom managers.

Goldstein recalled Block saying “he was ‘going to get rid of the bad guys, (Guild Unit Chairman) Jonathan Silver and Fuoco and … Shribman!” Goldstein said Block then claimed he’d fired Shribman who announced in December that he was “stepping down” after 16 years at the paper.

Shribman could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday. His successor has yet to be named.

Miller said Block blamed Shribman for the “Shame on the Blocks!” poster, adding that he’d “fired Shribman for insubordination and because he was disloyal to the Blocks.” Miller said Block claimed “he never should have hired Shribman” and that “the previous editor, John Craig, never should have been hired.” Miller said Block added, “No man is more hated by the Blocks than John Craig.” Craig, who died in 2010, was the paper’s editor from 1977 to 2003.

According to Miller, Block then threatened to fire Fuoco and Silver, adding, “He said he’d close the whole paper unless we took down the poster.” (The sign remained on display in the newsroom Wednesday, Fuoco said.)

During this time, Goldstein said Block continued “slapping and kicking the wall near the ‘Shame on the Blocks’ sign, and pounding his fists.”

When Stapleton showed up after about 20 or 30 minutes, Block told her, according to Goldstein, “that the newspaper was ‘going to hell’ and that he was ‘going to burn the place down.'”

Goldstein said he was “horrified” by what he witnessed, adding, “I was extremely concerned for (the child’s) safety, and I actually noticed that my heart was racing. It was sickening and one of the worst things I’ve ever had the displeasure to witness, certainly in an office setting.”

Block was ultimately calmed by Stapleton and Steve Spolar, BCI’s HR and labor relations vice president.

On the heels of the incident, the Guild asked that Block be barred from the building pending mental health and drug and alcohol evaluations. If he was to return, the Guild asked that he be searched for weapons first.

The Guild said in a statement released with the eyewitness accounts that it believes Block “has personal issues that must be addressed before he is allowed to return to the newsroom and be around his employees, both for our safety and his.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Guild said the Post-Gazette had not yet provided crisis counseling for its staff. Nor had it barred JR Block’s access to the newsroom or sought to formally interview any of the Guild’s members who were present on Saturday, “as would be expected in any business setting where such a situation has occurred.”

In support of their request that Block’s access be restricted, the Guild presented company executives with video and photos of the encounter, as well as the same eyewitness accounts it released to media outlets, including The Incline, on Wednesday.

Fuoco said in lieu of action by the company, Guild members concerned for their safety have been given the option of working from home this week. Fuoco said five employees took advantage of the offer Tuesday.