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Washington Post Settles Labor Beef on Bezos Bashing (1)

Aug. 17, 2018, 3:07 PMUpdated: Aug. 17, 2018, 6:09 PM

The Washington Post has settled disputes with newsroom workers over social media policies and the disciplining of a reporter who criticized owner Jeff Bezos, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The agreement is part of a resolution of long-running and sometimes contentious labor contract negotiations over pay and other employment terms for reporters and some commercial staff. The two sides recently reached an agreement on a two-year contract that includes a $15-per-week raise.

The deal settles two unfair labor practice charges that the National Labor Relations Board filed on behalf of the Washington Post Guild.

Reporters may now be “held responsible” for public social media posts that are false or “defamatory” toward the newspaper, its customers, and advertisers, according to an Aug. 17 letter to union members obtained by Bloomberg Law.

Inappropriate entries are those that damage the Post’s business relationships or impair the employee’s ability to do the job to warrant disciplining a reporter, Fredrick Kunkle, a transportation reporter and head of the union, said in the letter.

“We negotiated language that both sides can live with on the social media policy, and we feel it was improved,” Kunkle told Bloomberg Law Aug. 16.

The settlement also resolves a dispute over an opinion piece Kunkle wrote for the Huffington Post. That article suggested Bezos and the paper’s other owners took an unwarranted hard-line stance during the contract negotiations.

The union is an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, which also represents Bloomberg Law reporters.

Attorneys for the Washington Post declined to comment. A newspaper spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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“This dispute arose from two separate matters. The first concerned the Post’s refusal last year to negotiate with the union over a new social media policy that we believed was overly broad and punitive,” Kunkle’s letter said. “The second concerned the Post’s disciplinary action against me after I wrote an op-ed that appeared in Huff Po and called out our owner, Jeff Bezos, for treating his employees poorly.”

The Post agreed to remove a written warning from Kunkle’s personnel file. Such warnings typically can lay the groundwork for further disciplinary action.

“Both sides also stipulated in writing that, should any such situation arise in the future, the Post can show that I have been made aware of the company’s policy on freelancing,” Kunkle said.

Contract negotiations lasted more than a year. The union told Bloomberg Law when the sides reached a tentative agreement in July that there was “little to celebrate.”

The union wasn’t able to win on issues such as increasing a 1 percent employer match to workers’ 401(k)s or getting a bigger raise.

The NLRB’s decision to open a case based on the union’s complaint means it found some merit to the reporters’ allegations that management unilaterally changed social media policies. That included allegedly banning all posts critical of the newspaper’s advertisers and business partners.

It’s generally unlawful for a business to modify employment terms covered in a collective bargaining agreement without negotiating with the union.

“In connection with reaching a new collective bargaining agreement, the Post and the Guild have agreed to resolve all pending NLRB proceedings to the satisfaction of all parties,” Rick Ehrmann, a local representative of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, the Post union’s parent organization, told Bloomberg Law Aug. 16.

To contact the reporters on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Wallender in Washington at awallender@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com