A human resources representative for Gannett, the parent company of the Arizona Republic, confiscated the work phone of a reporter involved in a campaign to unionize the Phoenix newsroom, the reporter said on Facebook.
Rebekah Sanders, who covers scams and bad business practices, claimed that a Gannett representative "interrogated" her about her "unionizing activity." Afterward, Sanders said, the representative confiscated her work phone.
"I asked how I would conduct interviews the rest of the day. She said, 'You won't.' I asked when I could have it back," Sanders wrote in a public Facebook post. "She said she would let me know. My work cell has all of my contacts and is an integral part of my job."
At least one other Republic staffer was called in for an HR meeting, according to employees involved in the organizing campaign.
Sanders told Phoenix New Times that the Gannett representative told her that the phone confiscation was part of a "personnel investigation" into an allegation that she was involved in the "surveillance" of co-workers.
She denied that she participated in any "surveillance" and emphasized that federal law guarantees the rights of workers to talk about workplace issues and organize unions.
"I have for 12 years built a career on my personal integrity and my commitment to reporting the truth and caring for my community," Sanders said. "I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong."
She added that she has never been disciplined during her career at the Republic.
Gannett could not be reached for comment.
The extraordinary move by Gannett to confiscate work phones and open human resources investigations represented an escalation in the company's attempts to push back on the Republic staff's organizing drive, which started in January after a round of layoffs.
Last week, Republic Executive Editor Greg Burton sent a newsroom-wide email vaguely accusing pro-union employees of "surveilling" their colleagues. Burton's email compared organizers with "crackpots and criminals," alluding to unsavory Arizonans such as the mother-killing state Senate candidate Bobby Wilson and Sue Black, the former Arizona Parks director who oversaw the bulldozing of native antiquities sites.
"These are the types who surveil journalists," Burton wrote. "Journalists don’t surveil other journalists."
Burton also wrote that staffers who engaged in alleged "surveillance" would have their "conduct" addressed "through disciplinary channels."
Two senior employees — reporters Craig Harris and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez — alleged Friday that they were the subject of "surveillance" by union supporters.
"They used an app to document via text messages the real-time movements of me and my colleagues who had reservations about the union effort," Harris wrote on Twitter. He said he had seen the chats in question.
"When those advocating I join their unionization effort wanted to talk to me, I met with them. After I said I had misgivings about it, they started monitoring and logging my movements — as well as my facial expressions during meetings," tweeted Wingett Sanchez. "That is surveillance and it is wrong."
Organizers, however, said that those accusations were an overblown reaction to regular union activity. The alleged "surveillance," organizers said, centered on a text messages sent through Signal, an encrypted messaging app frequently used by investigative journalists to discuss sensitive matters.
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Organizers used the chat to discuss regular union activity. Some of the pro-union reporters noted in the chat when employees skeptical of the effort, including Harris, invited reporters in the newsroom to talk outside the office.
"When Gannett is forcing everyone to attend mandatory meetings on all the reasons a union is a terrible idea and employees are suddenly being taken to coffee and questioned about how they feel about their jobs, it’s important to check in with your coworkers," said Maria Polletta, a Republic political reporter who is involved in the organizing drive.
Both Harris and organizers declined to show the chats to New Times.
Federal labor law prohibits employers from "spying" on union activity.