For a long time, Mountain Xpress has been my kind of paper. The stories are, in my opinion, the ones that should be written and engage our local community in thoughtful discussion on who we are and who we want to be. So many in the Asheville area view Mountain Xpress as our community paper because we feel that it covers the issues we care about. It allows us to connect with community issues and with each other in ways that help us create a better community instead of covering the news from the stand point of institutional or big corporate interests and viewpoints.
Recently, however, I have been deeply troubled by the actions of the leadership of the Xpress.
At BeLoved Community, we are working people – day laborers, blue-collar, fast-food, custodial, and, construction workers to name a few. In our American context, workers continue to struggle with a minimum wage so far under what the costs of survival actually are. Workers are too often exploited. The exception has been workers who have banded together, organized, and collectively worked for their rights. Much of the rights and protections we enjoy today in the workplace come from workers organizing particularly through worker unions: the 8 hour work day, weekends, sick leave, and ending child labor, for example.
On the eve of May Day, where people across the globe celebrate workers, I am deeply troubled that Mountain Xpress has not only turned a deaf ear to its workers but has fired one who sought to organize them. This is a sad day when I feel that I can no longer support what I considered to be “my paper of choice,” one of our most community-oriented papers along with the Urban News.
This past week, I was asked to share about our collaborative work at BeLoved through the non-profit edition of the Mountain Xpress. The best I can do is to share with you how we pour out our blood, sweat, and tears to love our neighbors (including and especially workers) and create better living conditions for those who struggle. This is the heart of who we are. I found that morally I was unable to participate in that story at the exclusion of what has happened at your paper.
So I write this letter to the editor to say that we support David Forbes, an excellent reporter, who has embodied the justice we work for daily. Instead of being heard and praised for his efforts to support his co-workers and build a stronger paper, he was fired. David has a big community following because he is so community-oriented. So for many of us this feels like the firing of one of our own, a neighbor truth-teller.
And I write to say that we unequivocally support the workers at Mountain Xpress. To spotlight our work of building community and seeking justice while turning a blind eye to the workers at the Xpress is impossible for us. Our integrity and conscience will not allow it. We call on the owners and managers at Mountain Xpress to change course, admit their mistake, stand by one of their finest reporters, support their workers, and again become the paper that we have been proud to support over the years.
Rev. Amy Cantrell
Publisher Jeff Fobes responds:
Thanks, Amy, for your heartfelt comments and for valuing the kind of journalism we have been producing for almost 20 years. I agree that organized workers in this country fought for decades to establish the rights and working conditions we take for granted today. But I disagree that Xpress has turned a deaf ear to its workers. We have paid a living wage to everyone for years. We have a long history of being responsive to the people who work here, and we encourage initiative and collaboration on the part of all staff, at all levels and across departments. My door remains open to everyone at Xpress.
I would not normally discuss personnel issues publicly, but because the termination of David Forbes has already been made public by him, I will address the concerns you express. We did not fire anyone for trying to organize Xpress workers. David Forbes, who we did fire in April, was let go for two separate and independent reasons: (1) He took copyrighted material belonging to Xpress and self-published it without authorization, and (2) he published disloyal and damaging comments about Xpress, the publisher and the managing editor while in the employ of Xpress. Forbes was paid as an employee to research and develop the article that he subsequently published on his own. It went through editorial review, he refused the guidance we provided, and we told him we would reassign the story to another reporter. Before we could do so, he published the story on his own on the Internet. I view this as theft of company property, copyright infringement and gross misconduct. Secondly, while I respect a person’s right to voice their opinion, Forbes’ public assertions — that Xpress and its management lack ethics and have betrayed the core purposes of journalism — bear no relationship to whatever labor issues he may have and they are patently disloyal and damaging to Xpress. Inasmuch, his comments constitute grounds for termination, independent of his self-publication of company property.
None of this should suggest that Xpress opposes unions. As to Forbes’ union-organizing activities, he had complete freedom to pursue his campaign at Xpress for five months. Our working relationship, however, dissolved when he took company materials and made his disloyal comments. The right to engage in union activity has never been interpreted to encompass the right to appropriate employer property for one’s personal use or to publicly defame the employer’s product.
You needn’t fear that Forbes’ departure will hold back Xpress workers’ ability to organize. If they want to do so, they certainly will. They’re an extremely sharp and self-motivated group of individuals. That’s why we hired them. If they decide that a union is the best route, I’ll back them up. As to my personal opinion, I think a union is not necessary at Xpress, but that’s a separate debate.
The impetus for a union at Xpress came, I believe, from internal dissension last year about who would control the paper’s editorial direction — not about working conditions. Everyone who lived through that period will agree it was not a pleasant time. But we’ve come through that and I believe we are stronger now. There’s always room for improvement, of course. And for that, my door remains open. Producing a good community paper requires a respectful, synergistic workplace, which requires team spirit and two-way communication. I am committed to maintaining, and will defend, these at Xpress.