This isn't a standard wage-and-benefit beef. Talk privately to employees past and present, and they'll say the movement was spurred by resentment for Editor Lisa Chamberlain, who is described as "immature," "incompetent," and an "obstinate child." And that's when they're being charitable.
Talk to union organizers on the record, however, and a more tempered view emerges. They say the drive stems from a simple desire to improve their workplace, though they decline to offer specifics. It's a cheery outlook best distilled by saleswoman Pam Campolieti: "We are all trying to make a great place to work even better."
It is, of course, rather disingenuous prattle, since shiny, happy employees aren't prone to organizing. Nor are they likely to urge members of Congress to intercede on their behalf with their New York parent company, Village Voice Media. U.S. Representatives Sherrod Brown, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, and Dennis Kucinich were all asked to write to CEO David Schneiderman, after Free Times Publisher Matt Fabyan refused to meet with the Cleveland Area Workers Rights Board, a nonprofit labor, religious, political, and community group that helps unorganized workers.
But the public posture is also understandable. Jobs are at stake, and employees seem genuine in their quest to keep the drive an internal matter. Besides, these are Coventry Roaders, more experienced in yelping about the price of free-range grapefruit than following the legacy of Hoffa. And there's no small embarrassment -- not to mention loss of street cred -- in admitting that the crunchy granola preached within the Free Times isn't practiced at home.
Chamberlain has long been the target of reporters' complaints. They say the former Kucinich aide runs an office resembling something out of the 1950s, where differing views are blunted, reprimands are harsh and frequent, and workers have no means of pursuing grievances.
"When it comes to knowing how to deal with people, she can't do it," says one former writer. "She's the kind of person who you would hear screaming at someone in a phone interview, and then wonder why they won't return her calls the next day."
They also contend that she's unequipped to handle editorial decisions, and that her political views -- described as the Oberlin-freshman variety -- cloud the paper's judgment. Reporters recount with a mix of amusement and horror how she sarcastically refers to her own sports page as the "white-male section," and how she once rejected a story related to Vietnam by responding, "Oh, I'm so over Vietnam." They also say she changes the tenor of stories to meet her views, even if the reporting suggests otherwise.
"If the story didn't come out with the conclusions that she thought were there, that means you did it wrong," says one writer.
(Chamberlain declined Scene's interview requests. "No need to keep calling," she responded by e-mail. "The publisher is speaking for the Free Times.")
Yet union organizers, at least publicly, are careful to stress that the drive wasn't prompted by a specific manager. "I've had a great relationship with my editor," says reporter Kevin Hoffman. "She has been extremely open to my ideas and has never taken an authoritarian tone with me."
Music writer Jason Bracelin echoes that support and suggests Chamberlain's detractors have problems with women. "I know some individuals are intimidated by having to work under a strong woman -- hence the tendency on the behalf of said individuals to sling mud at Lisa, who certainly falls into that category. That, however, is more a reflection of fragile -- mostly male -- egos than it is any transgression on Lisa's behalf."
Publisher Fabyan is also standing with his editor. Excuse him, however, for being a bit miffed by the union drive. If organizers are trying to keep a public lid on their complaints, they're also keeping them from him, he says. Either way, "I don't care if they unionize . . . I'm so busy, I'm not even thinking about it too much."
Fabyan says there's little union support among staff. Employees counter by saying that writers and production workers are soundly behind the drive, but "salespeople are split, nervous, or outright anti-union."
Then again, with so much posturing, it's hard to believe what anyone says. Workers claim they're the first happy employees in America to require a union to protect their joy. And the publisher claims he's the first boss in history who doesn't care if his employees unionize or not.
Chalk it all up to the wonderful hypocrisy practiced by the media. Our squawks come loud and furious ,when lips shut and sources run for cover. But when the spotlight's on us . . . that, friends, is another matter.