When the Santa Barbara New-Press goes on trial next week at a National Labor Relations Board hearing, the public may get a glimpse of more than the feud between a newspaper owner and eight reporters who say she fired them illegally.

The Aug. 14 hearing could also highlight a trend in labor law that has turned the collective bargaining process into an employer’s tool against workers, says a University of California, Santa Barbara history professor.

“What has happened is that for a variety of reasons, the purpose of the labor law has become increasingly restrictive for employees,” says Professor Nelson Lichtenstein, who specializes in labor law. “It’s now essentially a weapon that employers use.”

Case in point: six reporters fired by the News-Press in February for placing signs over a freeway overpass calling for people to cancel their subscriptions. The reporters were also calling for the reinstatement of two other News-Press reporters, also plaintiffs at next week’s hearing, who had been fired earlier for alleged bias in their articles. All eight are fighting to be reinstated to their jobs with back pay.

The firings were the latest development in an ongoing battle between News-Press owner Wendy McCaw and editorial staff that began last year when six editors quit in protest of her purported interference in the newsroom.

McCaw has said in signed editorials and guest columns she was forced to take action because reporters and editors ignored her calls for more balance in news articles. News-Press staff said McCaw was retaliating against them for fighting to keep her politics out of the newsroom. In the next few months all but two news reporters resigned or were fired — but not before the staff voted 33-6 to form a collective bargaining unit with the Teamsters.

The eight reporters say their protest was protected union activity — the signs read “Stop illegal firings,” “Bring back Anna,” “Bring back Melinda” and “Cancel your newspaper today” without identifying the News-Press. But McCaw’s attorney Barry Cappello says the newspaper’s position is that threatening it with possible loss of income is illegal, union-related or not.

“We believe the law is clear that regardless of whether this was a union activity, there cannot be a disparagement of the product,” said Cappello, adding, “There was absolutely nothing that indicated that this was a union activity.”

Nonetheless Teamsters organizer Marty Keegan said he is looking forward to the hearing and expects a decision in the reporters’ favor.

“We feel very confident we’ll prevail, because the labor board has investigated and in a sense indicted the employing company,” said Keegan. “We’ve seen much larger, much wealthier companies fight, but they eventually have to sit down and negotiate.”

Lichtenstein says Cappello’s argument demonstrates exactly how the original intent of labor law has been getting turned on its head, protecting employers instead of workers.

Using the argument activist workers may be coercing other workers into joining unions, lawyers have won series of court rulings limiting what protesting workers are allowed to do, Lichtenstein said.

“The whole point of a boycott is to affect the company’s profitability,” said Lichtenstein. “They should be able to say, ‘Boycott the News-Press.’ Free speech has become defined as coercion — it’s a reduction to absurdity.”

Lichtenstein says he favors legislation like the recently defeated labor bill, the Employees Freedom of Choice Act. That bill would have required employers to begin collective bargaining negotiations as soon as workers vote to have them, instead of giving employers repeated chances to appeal.

A version of the bill passed the House of Representatives but on June 27 failed to get the needed 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster.

“If the act had been in place, we would not have had to put up with the trauma and upheaval that we’ve had to endure for the last year,” said Dawn Hobbs, one of eight fired reporters who will be testifying at next week’s hearing.

“Instead, we had to go through an election, McCaw was legally able to challenge that election for baseless reasons,” continued Hobbs, “and even though a judge ruled in our favor on the election — that we won it fair and square — she was still able to appeal it.”

In the meantime, more than 40 people have been forced out who would have been in the bargaining unit, noted Hobbs.

Last month the NLRB turned down the eight reporters’ application to be reinstated without the hearing, but Keegan noted the board rarely grants such requests and said the ruling doesn’t change anything.

“The issues are the same, restoring a wall between the owner and the newsroom and maintaining professionalism,” said Keegan. “This has always been about professionalism.”