After Casper Star-Tribune owner Lee Enterprisers terminated an editor Wednesday — one recently named Wyoming’s Young Journalist of the Year — the paper’s guild said the move appears to be a union-busting intimidation tactic.
The criticism comes on a day the company also terminated two employees on the newspaper’s business side and suspended a reporter with pay, WyoFile learned through independent sources. They spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of retaliation.
The events come five weeks after the newspaper’s staff voted to unionize in an effort to promote a more stable newsroom. The timing raised suspicions that the shakeup was not for the financial reasons stated by the paper’s publisher, a guild statement said. The three layoffs and suspension occur as employees at a sister paper — the Missoula Independent in Montana — get set to vote on unionization on April 6.
An “out-of-state resources representative” called Elise Schmelzer, the Star-Tribune’s features editor, at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday to tell her she was being laid off, the News Guild, a union, said in a statement distributed on Twitter. Schmelzer won the Wyoming Press Association’s 2017 Young Journalist of the Year Award at the group’s recent annual convention.
According to the Guild publisher Dale Bohren cited “financial” reasons for Schmelzer’s termination. Bohren and editor Joshua Wolfson did not return messages seeking comment by presstime Thursday.
“That statement does not appear to be credible,” the Guild release stated. “During a staff meeting several weeks ago, Bohren and other Lee Enterprise officials attempted to discourage us from forming a union in part by telling us that there were no layoffs planned despite recent cuts at other newspapers in the company.”
As an editor, Schmelzer was not a union member and did not participate in organizing the union, guild chairman Seth Klamann, the newspaper’s education and health reporter said. As a management employee, she was not eligible to join, or be protected by, the guild.
The reporter who was suspended Thursday had written an internal staff email about Schmelzer’s termination that morning, WyoFile learned from independent sources. That reporter was told to leave the building and surrender keys.
One of the employees who was laid off Thursday had replied to the building-wide email about Schmelzer’s termination, a source said.
The guild questioned the motives behind Lee Enterprise’s move.
“If the reasons behind [Schmelzer’s] dismissal are truly financial, those promises [of no layoffs] appear to be either calculated lies told to discourage unionization, or they suggest incompetence in the financial management of the newspaper,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, it appears to the News Guild that Lee Enterprise’s dismissal of Elise … was in fact punitive retaliation for exercising our federally protected right to form a union.”
Schmelzer was part of a tight-knit group of about four employees who had schooled together and matured in the newsroom crucible, Klamann said, speaking for himself.
Her firing is a loss for the Star-Tribune,” the guild statement said. “It is a loss for our readers, for the state, for the region and for the industry,” the guild said, highlighting a recent Schmelzer story about domestic violence in rural Wyoming.
“We begin bargaining with Lee Enterprises on April 19,” the guild statement said. “If the removal of Elise was an attempt to intimidate or demoralize the union or the newsroom at large, it has failed. We will redouble our efforts to ensure that the dedicated journalists of this newsroom are protected.”