With the memory of the Santa Barbara News-Press firings still festering in the minds of many, a panel discussion was held last night to promote stricter labor laws.

The discussion, which was held at the Faulkner Gallery downtown, focused almost exclusively on the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009, a proposed amendment to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, or Wagner Act. The act, if passed, would make it easier for laborers to form unions.

The event, which attracted several pro-union activists, as well as former Santa Barbara News-Press employees, was decidedly in favor of the proposed amendment. Yet while supporters of the EFCA hail it as a much-needed protection for labor, critics claim that the law could put pressure on employees to support unionization.

Local Congresswoman Lois Capps, a co-sponsor of the bill, was also in attendance last night.

“These sound like pious platitudes, but they really are the heart of what we’re talking about this evening.” Capps said. “Unions and organized labor empower workers to increase their wages, a goal that any one worker could not achieve alone… it simply streamlines the process and protects workers from coercion or intimidation.”

The recent controversy over unionization at the Santa Barbara News-Press, and the subsequent firings that resulted, proved a pertinent topic at last night’s panel discussion. Among those in attendance were former News-Press writers Melinda Burns and Dawn Hobbs, who were fired in 2006 and 2007, respectively, for allegedly attempting to unionize workers at the News-Press.

“We didn’t know our vote [to unionize] was the signal to fire all of the union staff, starting with me,” Burns said, referencing the termination of nearly a dozen former News-Press employees.

Since 2006, the newspaper has been entangled in legal disputes between former employees and owner Wendy McCaw, and the National Labor Relations Board is currently prosecuting the paper for violating labor laws. Burns and Hobbs are key witnesses in the prosecution.

“We are still waiting for justice. And so is Santa Barbara,” Burns said. “Why should we be the ones suffering when it’s our boss who’s breaking the law?”

According to members of the panel, as well as Capps, the News-Press firings could have been avoided if the EFCA had been law.

“It’s very unfortunate what’s been allowed to happen,” Capps said. “This is really the heart [of the EFCA]. It’s the poster child for this debate.”

However, Hobbs made it clear that the EFCA looked beyond the example of the News-Press case. If passed, the EFCA would allow a union to begin representing workers after a simple majority of employees publicly agree to its representation.

“This isn’t just a dispute between the News-Press and employees,” Hobbs said. “It’s about labor rights nationwide.”