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— Management's response, on the other hand, has been unequivocal and ham-fisted. First, the company's irked top brass went to court to try to convince the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to ban the workers from publicizing their dispute, even though they are doing it on their own time and off company property. That had union members pulling out their pocket Constitutions and crying foul.

"They're trying to deny our First Amendment rights, which are the very rights that enable them to make the tremendous profits they do," says Finneran. "I mean, Helen Copley is worth close to $800 million, according to Forbes Magazine. She made that money on the First Amendment. It is incredibly hypocritical."

Then, last week, the company took the fight to the next level, declaring an impasse in negotiations and implementing management's final offer, a 30-page document that contains things the union doesn't want -- like a 12-hour workday -- and some things it frankly doesn't understand, including this: "The rights of management shall include the right to determine the existence or nonexistence of the facts..."

"I mean, what the hell does that mean?" Finneran asks. "People are afraid a little bit. They're, like, 'Wait a minute. Now the company can do whatever it wants?' "

Local 432-M has formally protested management's declaration of impasse and plans to file an unfair-labor-practice charge against the paper at the NLRB. In the meantime, the union has won a preliminary victory in its effort to fight the paper's courtroom effort to suppress the leafleting campaign.

In December, the NLRB's Los Angeles office investigated the matter and then ruled against the paper, saying the employees were within their rights and that the handbilling did not constitute unlawful picketing. To Cal-Western's Dannin, who worked as a trial attorney at the NLRB in Detroit for 11 years, that makes it "90 percent" certain that the NLRB's Washington office, which is handling the U-T's appeal, will rule in favor of the workers. "In my experience, the board agents do a very serious job in their investigations...they get it right the first time," Dannin says.

The whole affair comes at an awkward time for the paper, which is trying to lure two dozen new reporters into its ranks as it beefs up coverage in outlying bureaus, especially North County. That may help explain why the paper has been reluctant to report the story. Recruiting journalists -- the principled variety anyway -- might get tricky if word got out the paper's management was in court trying to get the feds to suppress the off-the-clock free-speech activities of its workers.

"It's strange that they're not even doing a cover-your-ass story," one former reporter says. "In the old days, they would at least go through the motions of covering these things. They'd get some poor reporter to write up a five-inch story that they would bury on B-3 or B-4."

(The paper has not completely ignored Local 432-M's noisy campaign. A mid-December demonstration by workers in front of the U-T building warranted a 224-word story that appeared on C-3. But the story failed to mention the paper's curious court campaign or the union's wider effort targeting advertisers. And in the days immediately following last week's declaration of impasse, nothing about the move appeared in the U-T.)

The news blackout is all the more troubling because the union alleges management's response to the leafleting campaign hasn't been confined to the courtroom. In a flurry of charges filed with the NLRB since the campaign began, Local 432-M claims managers are retaliating against workers inside the pressroom. And they claim one employee, Jeff Alger, a 30-year-old father of five has been hard hit by the retaliation. The union says managers have imposed unwarranted discipline on Alger, threatened to falsely accuse him of sabotage, and spied on him when he was off company property in "an obvious effort to threaten, coerce, restrain and intimidate Mr. Alger from engaging in further activities in support of the local union."

"They're not going to get to me, but they'd like to; I'm, like, their number-one target right now," says Alger, who commutes to work from Fallbrook every night. "The drive gives me plenty of time to think...and pray."

Alger has worked in the pressroom, on the second floor of the U-T's Mission Valley production building, for 11 years. Even under the best circumstances, it's not a nice place to spend a seven-and-a-half-hour shift. When the four 30-ton Goss offset presses are running at full speed, cranking out 1000 newspapers a minute, the noise is so loud, Alger says, "it pierces your brain." The pressmen guard against long-term hearing damage by donning ear protection whenever they're on the floor, which forces them to do much of their communicating by sign language. But the ear protection can't keep out the bone-shaking vibrations that pass from the presses through the metal floor, and it does nothing to keep out the odor of oil and ink that permeates the room. And over the last few months, the work environment has actually deteriorated as a press-expansion project and an asbestos-abatement program turned the pressroom into a construction zone.

Alger and his colleagues don't really complain about the noise and the heat and the smell of the place. They see themselves as a special breed, men and women who are tough enough to work in a setting that looks more like Detroit in the '30s than San Diego on the eve of the second millennium. Theirs is a respectable, skilled trade that places them at a pivotal point in the production of the daily paper. The pay isn't so bad, either, they admit. First-year apprentices earn between $12 to $13 an hour and top-scale journeymen take home about $20.50 an hour.

What they do grouse about is the fact that for six years now they have worked the odd hours and the weekend shifts the job requires without a contract. What they want, they say, is a new contract that does three things: gives the workers a 5 percent, across-the-board pay increase; allows the workers to continue participating in the union pension; and reduces their monthly health-insurance premium from $180 to $10 -- the same amount non-union employees pay. The company's response? Imposing a contract that gives them nothing, Finneran says.

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