Former Santa Barbara News-Press employees and supporters of workers’ rights held a rally Thursday in De la Guerra Plaza to mark the five-year anniversary of the paper’s controversial resignations and firings in 2006.

About 80 people showed up to hear from several speakers, including three former News-Press employees — senior writer Melinda Burns, former criminal justice reporter Dawn Hobbs and former columnist Barney Brantingham. All shared their sadness for what they see as the decline of the News-Press and the trampling on workers’ rights by owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw.

The News-Press Meltdown, as it’s known locally, began in 2006 when five editors resigned, accusing McCaw of improper interference with news coverage, in part because of seemingly arbitrary discipline of reporters and editors. In September 2006, newsroom employees voted to join the Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Within four months, McCaw had fired eight reporters.

A federal labor law judge ordered McCaw to start bargaining in good faith with her newsroom in May 2010. She continues to appeal the decision.

“Wendy McCaw, like Rupert Murdoch, is not above the law for all her millions,” said Burns, calling the rally an awesome show of support for the former News-Press employees.

Hobbs, who said she misses her time covering Santa Barbara’s law enforcement and courts, now works as an organizer for the Teamsters.

“Why is it, five years later, that we are out here instead of in there writing stories for you?” asked Hobbs, referring to the News-Press building behind her as she spoke Tuesday. She added that the Santa Barbara community’s continued support is needed until federal labor law gets some teeth.

Community activist and civic leader Selma Rubin sends a message to Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw.

Community activist and civic leader Selma Rubin sends a message to Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw. (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

Local politicians also added their voices to the mix. Representatives for Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, read statements proclaiming the lawmakers’ support of workers’ right to bargain and the burden placed on the News-Press employees and their families.

Former Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, Santa Barbara County Democratic Party chairman Daraka Larimore-Hall and Teamsters organizer Marty Keegan also spoke at the rally.

“We salute those journalists who lost their jobs based on their principles,” Cannon said. “Your fight is our fight.”

Harriet Phillips, who lives in a retirement community in Santa Barbara, crooned an old union song, ending with, “I’m sticking to union to the day I die.”

Former News-Press editor Jerry Roberts did not speak to the crowd Thursday but told Noozhawk that he and his wife attended because they support journalism and journalists. He would not comment further because of ongoing litigation.

Roberts, editor for four years, resigned in 2006, citing management interference with news coverage. McCaw-owned Ampersand Publishing LLC sued Roberts, alleging he had violated his contract, and Roberts filed a counterclaim for wrongful termination. Ampersand fired back with an amended claim, announcing it would seek $25 million in damages. In February 2010, McCaw was ordered to pay nearly $1 million in legal fees and arbitration costs to Roberts.

Ira Gottlieb, an attorney for the Teamsters, said it would take a reform of labor law or the Court of Appeals finding McCaw in contempt to end the dispute.

McCaw and other News-Press representatives could not be reached for comment.

Noozhawk intern Daniel Langhorne can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.