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.