Eyewitness accounts of Post-Gazette Publisher JR Block’s now-infamous newsroom meltdown over the weekend have all shared a focal point. And they say it was Block’s focal point when he arrived in the office around 10 p.m. Saturday with his young child in tow and began to “rant and rave” about the newsroom’s labor union while threatening to fire union leaders and “burn the place down.”
Witnesses say Block focused his scorn, in particular, on a poster hung in the newsroom by the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union representing some 150 Post-Gazette newsroom employees.
The poster reads “Shame on the Blocks!” — a dig at the paper’s family-run ownership company, Block Communications Inc., amid ongoing and increasingly contentious contract negotiations between BCI and the Guild. (Post-Gazette newsroom employees have been working without a new contract for nearly two years.)
But how did that poster come to be in the newsroom and at the center of the latest controversy to surround the media organization?
The poster was first displayed on a designated Guild bulletin board inside the newsroom in December, said Guild President Mike Fuoco.
“We did it because we learned for a second year in a row that [BCI] would not pay, as required by contract and federal law, the increase in our health care premiums of five percent,” Fuoco recalled in a phone call with The Incline.
Months earlier, the Guild had filed an unfair labor complaint alleging the company’s refusal to cover the hike amid ongoing contract talks amounted to a violation of U.S. labor law. The National Labor Relations Board agreed, as did an administrative law judge. BCI appealed those decisions.
The “Shame on the Blocks!” poster was conceived of by Guild Unit Chair Jonathan D. Silver and approved by members of the Guild’s executive committee, Fuoco said. The poster was hung in the newsroom on Dec. 11.
In the weeks since, Fuoco said he’d heard “through the grapevine” that JR Block had a “tremendous problem” with the poster and its message but that Block never conveyed this to any Guild member — until Saturday night.
In a 45-second video clip of Saturday’s tirade provided to The Incline, Block is seen standing before the poster and heard shouting “Get rid of it!” before striking the poster with his hands, twice. Written accounts from Guild members present say Block repeatedly shouted and slapped the poster and that he kicked the wall near it and pounded his fists.
A statement released by the company cites Block’s “sincere regrets over his conduct” but disputes characterizations of the encounter put forth by the Guild and its members. Guild members say Block has yet to apologize to them directly, with Fuoco adding, “We only heard about his ‘regrets’ from media accounts quoting the BCI statement, which was not provided to PG managers or Guild members …”
On Wednesday, Block returned to the newsroom for the first time since the incident.
The poster remained in place and remains there now, Fuoco said. There are no plans to take it down.
The bulletin board and two others in the Post-Gazette’s offices are contractually guaranteed to the union along with control over their content, albeit with obvious restrictions on messaging considered pornographic or threatening, for example.
Fuoco called this a long-standing tradition, one that predates our current digital age.
“It’s usually part of most union contracts that we have the right to communicate with members,” Fuoco said. “It’s messaging. This actually goes way back. Before emails and text messages, you communicated with membership on bulletin boards.”
While The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh has hung posters before that were critical of the company for its failure to provide pay raises, among other points of contention, Fuoco acknowledged this poster naming the Blocks and literally shaming them for the company’s failure to cover a hike in health care costs is “particularly pointed.”
Fuoco said this poster was meant to communicate with members but also to communicate a rather provocative message to the paper’s owners.
Saturday’s incident is now forming the basis for a new unfair labor complaint filed by the Guild against the Post-Gazette’s owners. The complaint alleges Block’s behavior on Saturday was an attempt to stifle union activity that’s protected by law. BCI has said it will have no further comment on this issue or about this incident until this latest labor complaint against the company is resolved.
In a statement issued Friday, the Allegheny – Fayette County Central Labor Council stood with the Guild in its calls for Block to be barred from the building pending mental health and drug and alcohol evaluations. (Marianne Mizera, a web editor at the Post-Gazette, Guild member and eyewitness to Saturday’s encounter, said Block appeared visibly intoxicated during his tirade inside the newsroom.)
“Every worker has a right to work in an environment that is safe, and free of intimidation and harassment by anyone, including the business owner,” Allegheny – Fayette County Central Labor Council President Darrin Kelly said in a written statement.
Fuoco said the company has declined to restrict Block’s access to the building as requested by the Guild. He said it appears BCI is digging in its heels, adding, “and so are we.”
Of course, the tension at the Post-Gazette is underscored by a recent string of controversies at the paper involving JR Block’s support for Donald Trump, disputes over editorial content, in-house criticism of the rightward trajectory of the paper’s editorial page, 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.
But the Post-Gazette is also emblematic of a larger trend, that being the growing force of labor unions in the news industry and the growing tension with ownership therein. The backdrop for this is the digitization of the profession, which has brought new and increased demands on reporters but also sweeping austerity measures.
In newsrooms nationwide, unions are forming or exerting their influence. The NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia, for example, recently delivered a unanimous vote of no-confidence in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s publisher amid a tussle over pension plans and stagnant salaries.
In Pittsburgh, Fuoco said while the Post-Gazette is losing money, its parent company, BCI, is still massively profitable as the owner of cable TV stations, radio stations and telecommunications systems nationwide. Fuoco added of the Guild, “Our position has been and remains that we plan to negotiate [with BCI] in good faith to achieve economic justice.”
There are no negotiating sessions currently scheduled.