Protesters picket Mountain Xpress

(photo by Alicia Funderburk)
(photo by Alicia Funderburk)

For nearly two hours on Friday afternoon, May 2, more than a dozen people picketed outside the downtown Asheville office of Mountain Xpress. The group, which included Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell, who once worked for the publication, formed a line outside the publication’s Wall Street entrance and displayed signs such as “Xpress needs a union” and “Asheville deserves better.”

The group gathered to support former employees’ claims of poor working conditions and to protest the recent firing of David Forbes, a reporter who had worked at the independently owned media company for seven years.

The picket was organized by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which Forbes says a number of current and former employees of the newspaper have sought to join since last fall. The union represents some 700,000 communications workers across North America and in Puerto Rico, including an estimated 45,000 members in news media.

Standing outside his former workplace during the demonstration, Forbes said the top management of the newspaper has displayed “patterns of ongoing retaliation” against employees who have expressed concern about poor working conditions and ethical issues.

In April, after being suspended for more than a week, Forbes was notified in a letter that his employment was terminated. At the demonstration, Forbes said he believes he was fired for speaking publicly about working conditions and for attempting to form a union. The publisher, Jeff Fobes, says the suspension and termination stem from separate issues.

While the tone among demonstrators seemed generally lighthearted, with conversations often straying from labor rights as a guitarist played nearby, some attendees were quick to single out the publisher, asserting that he has a history of insensitivity toward workers’ rights. Forbes said that Fobes cut vacation time by a week last year without any explanation.

John Spitzberg, a retiree and labor activist who attended the protest, said that the publisher is “saying to the working class of America, ‘You don’t count.’”

Some former employees present at the protest said that the union push emerged after the October 2013 firing of then-staff photographer Max Cooper. A flier, handed out by protest participants, said that Cooper had given a letter to the top management “laying out concerns about the direction of the paper.” He was fired within a day.

The National Labor Relations Board later issued a complaint on behalf of the union over Cooper’s firing, alleging coercion and restraint. The newspaper has denied those allegations, and a hearing is scheduled for June.

In an interview in his office during the demonstration, the publisher, Fobes, said that employees seeking to form a union are within their rights to do so and that the protesters are “pursuing their First Amendment rights.”

The reporter was not fired as a result of his union push, Fobes continued. He said that Forbes was fired due to separate issues, among them “damaging” and “disloyal” comments the reporter posted on a website where he self-published a story that had been assigned by Xpress and was under review at the time.

About a dozen staff have left Xpress in the past year, and staffing levels, overall, are significantly lower than before the recession of 2008.

The departures reflect a nationwide trend in the industry, which continues to face declining revenue largely as a result of a shift in advertising from print to online, said Bernie Lunzer, president of the CWA’s Newspaper Guild, in a telephone interview.

“The newspaper industry, in general, has been hit pretty hard,” he said. The guild represents 30,000 members with jobs in print news media.

But while Lunzer noted that larger newspapers have incurred most of the losses, he said that newspapers in smaller markets, like Xpress, are somewhat insulated from the trend and still are kept afloat by advertising from local businesses.

As for former Xpress reporter Forbes, he and others intend to continue pushing for a union for the newspaper’s workers. “It is far from over,” he said in a post on his blog, called Xpress Needs a Union.

About two dozen full-time staff currently work at Xpress, which was launched in 1994.

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10 thoughts on “Protesters picket Mountain Xpress

  1. Dionysis

    A dozen employees leaving a rather small company in one year is an example of “trends in the industry?” Is this trend to fire employees in droves or is the trend for disaffected employees to just quit their jobs in a still weak economy? And having read Forbes web piece, if even some of the asserted heavy-handed behaviors are true, it would explain a LOT about the direction the publication has taken in recent years. Hopefully the facts will emerge and readers can make their own assessments.

      • Mountain Xpress once filled the gaping hole in local news coverage left by the chronically inadequate Citizen-Times. Now the focus seems to have shifted to boosterism for the gentrified Asheville economy. Nothing wrong with having such a publication in town, of course, but it is indeed sad that a once-proud news organization has sold its tradition for a mess of consumerist pottage. I won’t be voting in “The Best of” competition this year. The smell of advertisement solicitation is too overpowering.

        Long live the next generation of upstarts.

  2. Lisa Watters

    I have worked at Mountain Xpress for over 14 years and I feel like it’s time to speak up. Most of the coverage of the ongoing ‘saga’ at Mountain Xpress has been very black and white and not indicative of how everyone who works here feels. I can only speak for myself of course so here goes.

    First, I like and respect David Forbes very much, both as a person and as a reporter. I will miss having him as my colleague very much. However I truly believe he was not fired for trying to start a union but for other actions on his part. As an employee I have never received any message, directly or overtly, from management that joining a union would put my employment at risk. In fact a notice was posted on the refrigerator in our staff kitchen for months with information about joining the union if we wished.

    Is this a perfect company to work for? No. Do I agree with everything management does? No. In fact I have gone to our publisher many times over the years when I disagreed with a policy or a direction to express my opinion. He has always listened to me respectfully and vice versa. Sometimes the conversation was enlightening for both of us and sometimes we just agreed to disagree.

    Forbes is right that our paid vacation time was cut by a week last year without any initial explanation. Did that suck? You bet. So I went to the publisher and expressed how I felt about it and how I thought it might affect company morale. He listened respectfully and then explained his reasoning for the cut, much of it financial. Did I necessarily agree with him, no, but at least now I understood where he was coming from. Forbes was free to go to him as well and talk about it at any time. I could have stayed pissed about the cut but then I thought: hey, I still have health insurance, an IRA plan the company pays into, a job I like and I still have three weeks paid vacation a year (I had four; formerly the max after ten years employment.) It could be worse.

    Most of the people who have left since the beginning of ’13 were in other departments than myself and I can’t speak for their experience. Of those who left over a third left for reasons other than being unhappy here (as with all businesses people come and go.) Does that still leave a significant number of people who left because they were unhappy. Yes, it does.

    Of all the people picketing outside our offices Friday I only saw four past employees; two who were let go years ago and two from the past year. Mostly I saw folks I had never laid eyes on before who were purportedly standing up for my rights as a worker even though I had not asked them to or been asked. It was surreal to say the least. I am pro-union when that’s what most of the workers want but I don’t believe that is the case here.

    Lisa Watters
    Assistant Office Manager

    • Ken Ashworth

      Lisa

      With respect, four former employees out of a roster of 24 is actually a HUGE margin, almost 25%. Have you asked yourself WHY former employees who as you indicate have “moved on” would even bother to take the time and self exposure to picket your employer? The above article states “more than a dozen” yet WLOS who had a camera on scene states “about 30″. Which was it? regardless, the point I am attempting to illustrate is how rare it is for former employees and perhaps the public at large to engage in such actions. based on this alone, I say something indeed must be rotten in Denmark. let’s don’t even discuss anything else.

      Taking your line of logic about none affiliated people joining the picket being some sort of personal affront regarding your “rights as an employee” is like condemning straight people from attending gay rights rallies. Some people are very passionate about things like a living wage, worker’s rights and a workplace democracy. I would have loved to have been there.

      Since you listed your job title, are you part of the management effort at MX? Would you be eligible to vote were a vote be the case ? You state you would be pro union if the majority of workers wanted a union. Then you indicate your belief that this is not the case. If you are speaking as an employee which the NLRB would say could vote on the issue, cool beans. But if you are part of management, your comments are not surprising.

      I hope it comes to a vote.

      • Lisa Watters

        Since you ask, Ken, I don’t believe I am part of the management effort at MX. I don’t attend manager meetings or receive manager related emails. I do assist our Office Manager in her work and interact with employees in other departments as an equal. I don’t actually supervise anyone. I do believe I am speaking as an employee who the NLRB would allow to vote on the issue.

  3. Ken Ashworth

    Since NC is what is called an at will” state, your employer can terminate you at any time for any reason with or without cause UNLESS you fall under certain federal protection standards espoused by EEOC. The only other protection would be if you were fortunate enough to have a contract, individual or collective.

    I only know Forbes marginally. I know he wrote an in depth article concerning s former push by local employees to unionize their workplace, and MX won an award for it.

    What I find most loathsome is that the publisher has chosen to use his own venue to further malign and demean Forbes, calling him “damaging and destructive. It’s my understanding that Forbe’s termination is the subject of an NLRB investigation and certainly the ONLY proper venue would be at any adjudication hearing to present evidence of termination for cause.

    That is the entire crux of the matter. Recent and extremely controversial rulings concerning an employee’s section 7 rights to speak out in any online or otherwise public venue about conditions in the workplace have been vigorously upheld in numerous federal court rulings. one need only visit the NLRB website to sample a cross section of these cases.

    From where I sit, it appears that management at MX acted in a petty and vindictive manner, especially by including “the real reason” for Forbe’s termination. It’s a slick no-class move. It is my fondest desire to see Mr.Forbes reinstated with full back pay.

    As to whether or not people unconnected to MX should or should NOT have joined the picket let me submit that in so doing, they were standing up for the rights of every disenfranchised, under paid, ill treated worker in the country.

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