Fired --by Henry Norr
Almost four weeks after suspending me for participating in an antiwar demonstration, the San Francisco Chronicle this week officially fired me from my job as a technology reporter and columnist. I consider this punishment a violation of my rights as a citizen and as an employee, and I intend to fight it with all the means available to me.
My union, the Northern California Media Workers (Local 39521, The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America), has already filed a new grievance over the termination of my employment, in addition to the grievance filed last month over my suspension and yet another one dealing with Chronicle management's unilateral modification of the paper's ethics policy in the wake of my case.
I also intend to file a complaint with the California State Labor Commission under Section 1102 of the State Labor Code, which unambiguously prohibits employers from interfering with the political activity of their employees. Specifically, Section 1102 says: "No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity."
The code prescribes criminal penalties for violations of this provision, including imprisonment in the county jail for up to a year. (The labor code's sections on political activity are posted at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=lab&group=01001-02000&file=1101-1106.)
Unfortunately, at least one media corporation in another state has managed to get around a similar law with the perverse argument that the First Amendment gives newspaper owners the right to limit the free speech of their employees. Whether the Chronicle will make a similar argument, and whether the California State Labor Commission will fall for it, I don't know. But the code itself makes no exceptions - for journalists or anyone else - and I hope the commission will go by the plain words of the law, order the Chronicle to reinstate me, and apply the penalties the code calls for.
At the time of my arrest last month, Chronicle policies did not ban participation in demonstrations. In fact, the paper's ethics policy explicitly states that "The Chronicle does not forbid employees from engaging in political activities but needs to prevent any appearance of any conflict of interest." Since my job was writing about personal technology, not politics and war, I saw and see no conflict of interest.
Since my suspension, management has twice made unilateral modifications to the ethics policy. The most recent "clarification" imposed "a strict prohibition against any newsroom staffer participating in any public political activity related to the war." But I wasn't about to make Phil Bronstein my moral compass, so I've used much of my unexpected free time to take part in the continuing struggle against the war and the occupation of Iraq. I've joined in several mass marches, I was shot in the leg with a wooden dowel at the Port of Oakland on April 7, and yesterday I was arrested again in civil disobedience outside the gates of Lockheed-Martin, the world's largest arms manufacturer, in Sunnyvale.
Whatever happens with my union grievances and my complaint to the labor commission, I intend to continue exercising my constitutional rights and my moral obligation, as I see it, to oppose the Bush Administration's reckless and illegal imperial adventures. Someday I may have grandchildren who ask my daughters what our family did in the face of this madness. At least they'll be able to say we all tried to make our voices heard - my wife and both of my daughters have also been arrested in civil disobedience this month. And I'm glad to know they won't have to say that I just stood on the sidelines for fear of retaliation from my employer.
April 23, 2003
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