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Hilo paper loses appeal in case of fired workers

April 21, 2012

HONOLULU - A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a National Labor Relations Board's decision that two reporters fired from a Hilo newspaper should be reinstated with back pay.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied the Hawaii Tribune-Herald's appeal of a NLRB decision that reporters Dave Smith and Hunter Bishop were illegally fired. Bishop was fired after a confrontation with Editor David Bock over a union matter where Bishop was accused of insubordination. Smith was fired for secretly recording a meeting with Bock where the editor gave him a warning about productivity.

The NLRB's 2011 ruling reaffirmed a 2008 decision by an administrative law judge.

In 2005, Bishop was given a termination letter from Bock that said he was "disrespectful of supervisory authority, insubordinate and disruptive of my efforts to have a conversation with one of our employees." Bishop had been trying to determine if an employee needed a union witness for a meeting with Bock.

In 2006, Smith and another employee expected to receive a warning from Bock about productivity. They were both denied an opportunity to bring a union witness to their meetings. Other bargaining unit employees advised Smith to surreptitiously record the meeting by hiding a recorder in his shirt. After Bock learned of the recording, Smith was fired.

The decision noted that no policy or law was violated by secretly recording the meeting.

Bock and Publisher Ted Dixon did not immediately return calls for comment Friday. The newspaper is owned by Stephens Media LLC of Las Vegas.

"We are thrilled with the decision," said Thomas Cestare, officer in charge of the NLRB's Honolulu office. He said the case could set a precedent for protecting employees' rights, such as employers forcing workers to reveal their Facebook passwords.

Bishop, now deputy director of the county Department of Environmental Management, said he hadn't yet reviewed the decision.

Smith said that as a freelance writer who isn't working full time, he's considering the option to return to the paper.

"The past six years since I was illegally terminated - the only time I have ever been fired from a job in the my life - have been difficult, both from a financial standpoint and from the uncertainty of having my journalism career unjustly jerked out from under me," he said. "Hopefully the Hawaii Tribune-Herald now realizes that it cannot run roughshod over its employees."

The former Hawaii Newspaper Guild initially filed the unfair labor practices complaint on behalf of Bishop and Smith. "While this case took several years and disrupted the lives of two of our reporters, justice has prevailed," the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents more than 2,000 journalists and court interpreters in California and Hawaii, said in a statement.

The back pay for Smith could be more than $200,000, Cestare estimated, but less for Bishop, who has been working full-time.

Cestare called the employees who testified in the case brave, "especially in a small town like Hilo."

"These are really decent people who were just interested in having a good workplace," he said.



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