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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette union files unfair labor action against publisher

Ben Schmitt
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The offices of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the North Shore on March 20, 2017.

The union representing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom workers on Wednesday filed unfair labor practice charges against Publisher John Robinson Block for what witnesses described as a “berserk” newsroom meltdown over the weekend.

Block intimidated staff members when he stormed into the North Shore newsroom Saturday night, ranting and raving and acting erratically, said Michael A. Fuoco, president of The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents 150 newsroom employees.

Fuoco and the guild asked Post-Gazette executives to deactivate Block’s identification badge and bar him from the newspaper until he undergoes a medical evaluation. So far, Block Communications Inc. has not responded to the request, he said. Block was seen in the newsroom Wednesday afternoon, Fuoco said in an email.

Tense negotiations over contract renewals and health care benefits between the newspaper and its unions have been ongoing since March 31, 2017.

Calls to Block Communications and John Robinson Block were not immediately returned Wednesday.

Nashville attorney Richard Lowe, who has represented the Post-Gazette on behalf of Block Communications during contract negotiations, did not immediately return a phone call Wednesday.

Chairman Allan Block referred to the incident as “an unfortunate exchange,” according to a statement provided by Tracey DeAngelo, the Post-Gazette’s chief marketing officer. Allan Block is John Robinson Block’s twin brother.

“Block Communications 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,” Allan Block said in the statement. “We want the entire staff to know that we will continue to value all of our employees and their contributions to the PG.”

The allegations filed with the National Labor Relations Board could lead to a hearing in which an administrative law judge would determine the next steps, according to the board’s website. They could range from dismissing the complaint to asking the company to “cease and desist and remedy” the situation.

Witnesses say John Block came into the Post-Gazette newsroom at 10 p.m. Saturday with his 12-year-old daughter. He demanded that a photographer take a picture of him and his daughter in front of a sign tacked onto a guild bulletin board that reads “Shame on the Blocks,” according to witness accounts provided to the Tribune-Review by the guild.

“Block was screaming at the top of his lungs, raving like a lunatic and repeatedly and loudly slapping the guild bulletin board with his hand,” Jonathan D. Silver, the union’s unit chairman, wrote in the email to members. “It was an ugly situation that went far beyond a mere JR flare-up. Numerous people were left on edge, worried for their safety and that of the little girl.”

Fuoco and Silver arrived at the newsroom Saturday night after receiving word of an emergency as did the paper’s Managing Editor, Sally Stapleton, and Stephen Spolar, a human resources executive for Block Communications.

The guild on Wednesday released four eye-witness accounts from newsroom employees working at the time of the incident. Marianne Mizera, a web editor, described watching Block as he “firmly jabbed his finger” into his daughter’s shoulder. All witnesses said the girl was sobbing and shaking as Block screamed. Block reportedly said to her, “Do you want to be high class or low class? You’re a Block, you’re one of us,” according to an account by reporter Andrew Goldstein.

Joseph J. Pass, an attorney representing the guild, said Block’s alleged actions violated labors laws and a union contract because the bulletin board is guild property.

“His behavior was problematic,” Pass said. “Anyone who acts as erratically as he did is a grave concern for the safety of the people in that building.”

There are photos and video of the incident, Fuoco said, but they have not been made public.

John Block has been the Post-Gazette’s publisher since 1989. The Block family acquired the Post-Gazette in 1926, according to the Block Communications Inc. website.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review assistant news editor. You can contact Ben at 412-320-7991, [email protected] or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.