Washington Post refuses arbitration after disciplining reporters

The front of the Washington Post building as pictured in September 2012. (Photo: Max Borge/Flickr Creative Commons)

A union representing two Washington Post journalists has sued the newspaper for failing to engage in arbitration hearings regarding recent disciplinary actions against the reporters.

The lawsuit, reported over the weekend by beltway publication Politico, was filed in federal court over a matter concerning tweets published by the newspaper’s media columnist, Paul Farhi, earlier this year.

In March, Farhi tweeted that the Washington Post would “remove bylines and datelines from stories produced by our journalists in Russia” after a multitude of legal threats made by the administration of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Farhi noted that the goal of the move was “to ensure staff’s safety,” but added that he had “never seen anything like this” during his career with the newspaper. (He later affirmed that the Post had removed bylines during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, and that the journalist who wrote the nameless pieces later won a Pulitzer Prize.)

The Washington Post suspended Farhi, saying his tweet violated their internal social media policy and purportedly “jeopardized the safety of a colleague as well as the ability of the Washington Post to report in a foreign country.”

The Washington-Baltimore News Guild filed their lawsuit against the newspaper in federal court earlier this month after the newspaper refused to engage in arbitration proceedings over the reporter’s discipline.

The newspaper’s decision not to engage in arbitration is unusual. Such remediation is typically agreed upon between unions and news companies through their collective bargaining agreements — a contract that outlines what companies must and cannot do with respect to covered union workers.

After Farhi filed a grievance with the union in March, the Washington Post said it did not need to engage in arbitration because its contract with the union expired. Politico says the collective bargaining agreement lapsed at the end of June.

The union is also seeking to force arbitration in the matter of the newspaper’s firing of political reporter Felicia Sonmez. In its lawsuit, the union says the newspaper has failed to engage in arbitration for the same reason — an expired collective bargaining agreement. Sonmez was fired for posting Twitter messages about her colleagues in a way that emboldened many of her thousands of social media followers to harass them.

In both cases, the union is hoping a federal judge will enforce the prior collective bargaining agreement, which it said covers both incidents involving the newspaper’s reporters.

The matter was still pending on the court docket as of Monday morning.