The Teamsters union, claiming that a local newspaper acted as an "agent" of city government in its coverage of a union organizing drive, has asked the Main Labor Relations Board to aside a vote by Ellsworth, Maine., police and firemen rejecting union affiliation.
In a case that could have broad First Amendment implications elsewhere if the union is upheld, the state board will hear aguments on Aug. 9 by Local 48 of the Teamsters and lawyers for the Ellsworth American, a 10,000-circulation weekly in southeastern Maine.
The union, in a prohibited practices complaint, charged that the newspaper "transmitted official city sentiment" and, as a result, influenced the outcome of the election on July 11. The firemen voted 5 to 1 to reject the Teamsters, and the policemen deadlocked 4 to 4 denying the union the necessary majority.
The union alleged that the newspaper violated a state law prohibition against any person "acting on behalf" of a municipality during a public employees' union vote.
James R. Wiggins, editor and publisher of the American, called the allegation "absurd, false and ridiculous," and said the union, in effect, is asking the labor board to sanction a "very interesting inhibition of the press." Wiggins formerly was editor of The Washington Post.
"Their allegation should cause considerable laughter at city hall, where we've been called just about everything but an agent of the city," Wiggins added.
City Manager Roger Moody, in a telephone interview, said, "The city had no agent, and certainly the newspaper was not acting as one." He said the city council had retained a law firm to contest the union's allegation.
However, Richard R. Peluso, Teamsters international trustee, said the newspaper's coverage of the organizing drive subjected the eligible voters to "coercive pressure" and went beyond expression of editorial views.
Peluso complained that the city government provided the American with the names and home addresses of the police and fire employees, which the newspaper published and that an article revealing that half the policemen and all the firemen had signed union authorization cards subjected them to interference and coercion.
The union charged also that the paper "threatened" the disbanding of the police and fire departments, an apparent reference to a May 19 editorial by Wiggins entitled, "The Fox in the Henhouse," in which the editor said a takeover of local law enforcement by state or county police would be preferable to Teamsters' affiliation.
Between May and the election, the American published numerous articles on the Teamsters, including a reprint of a study of organized crime involvement in the union.
The Teamsters are currently involved in organizing efforts among police, sheriff's deputies, prison guards and even the staffs of prosecuting attorneys in at least 15 states.
The union represents about 20,000 law enforcement officers nationally, a fraction of the 500,000 police in the United States but enough to raise vigorous warnings that the union is attempting to buy protection from law enforcement.
In its complaint, Local 48 claimed that the American, by recounting the Teamsters' links to organized crime and its national organizing drive, had engaged in a "spurious" attempt to "disenfrachise" union recruiters of their right to sign up new members.
Allen Biggs, spokesman for the international Teamsters Union here, denied tha the Local 48 charges would inhibit objective reporting, and added, "It (the allegation) is well overdue, generally. Reporting of organizing campaigns more often than not is biased in favor of the employers, who usually are the newspapers' advertisers.
Biggs said the Ellsworth case was the first he was heard about in which a newspaper was accused of being an agent of the employer because of the reporting or editorializing.