WASHINGTON — At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, tensions have run hot for years between the newsroom and the daily’s publisher, John Robinson Block. The journalists union hasn’t had a contract for nearly two years, and Block has overseen the contentious firing of an anti-Trump cartoonist and the publication of a hotly debated editorial that defended President Trump’s offensive language about immigrants.
The relationship is so sour that the union recently put up a ‘‘Shame on the Blocks!’’ poster in the newsroom. That message, staff members now say, sparked a late-night outburst from Block on Saturday so disturbing that the union has filed a federal labor complaint and some reporters have refused to return to work, out of fear.
After Block’s brother, with whom he runs the company, defended his actions as ‘‘an unfortunate exchange with employees’’ driven by financial worries, the union released four statements Wednesday from staff members who had witnessed the tirade. They described the publisher as ‘‘intoxicated’’ and said he threatened to fire employees while roughly handling his weeping 12-year-old daughter, who was trying to escape from the scene.
‘‘The only reason that we released these statements is because the company is putting out a false narrative of what occurred,’’ Michael Fuoco, a longtime reporter and president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, told The Washington Post. ‘‘I find it absurd that the chairman of a media company is putting out a lie.’’
A representative of Block Communications, which owns the Post-Gazette, didn’t immediately respond to a message from The Washington Post. On Tuesday, Block’s twin brother, Allan Block, defended his actions.
‘‘The frustration over financial and other challenges in the newspaper industry led to an unfortunate exchange with employees of which I have been made aware,’’ Allan Block said in the statement. ‘‘Block Communications regrets if anyone present may have misconstrued what occurred as anything other than an indication of strong concern and support for the legacy and future of the Post-Gazette.’’
That’s simply not true, Fuoco said. What took place in the Post-Gazette newsroom on Saturday was conveyed by the journalists in the room who immediately took notes, he said.
The trouble started about 10 p.m., when about 15 staff members were working to finish up the Sunday print edition. That’s when John Robinson Block showed up with his daughter. Marianne Mizera, a Web editor, wrote in one of the four witness statements released by the union that he was ‘‘slightly stumbling’’ and ‘‘awkward,’’ adding, ‘‘It was clear he was intoxicated.’’
The publisher zeroed in on the ‘‘Shame on the Blocks!’’ poster and began ‘‘punching and slapping the poster and the wall,’’ wrote Alex Miller, a paginator. Block yelled at a photo editor, demanding that a photo be taken of him and his daughter in front of the poster to run on the front page of the next day’s paper.
But Block’s daughter, who was crying, didn’t want to take the photo and tried to get away, the staff members said.
‘‘She was screaming that she didn’t want to, crying hysterically and red-faced. I felt terrible about what I was watching,’’ wrote Andrew Goldstein, a night police reporter. ‘‘He was screaming in [her] face about the Block family legacy: ‘Do you want to be high class or low class? You’re a Block, you’re one of us!’ ‘‘
Mizera wrote that he ‘‘forcefully grabbed his daughter’s forearm,’’ and Carl Remensky, who works on the sports desk, said that ‘‘he had hold of her, with his arms around her waist, trying to pull her back in front of that bulletin board.’’
Eventually, Mizera wrote, she was able to take Block’s daughter down the hall for a drink of water. But in the newsroom, staff members said, Block continued to berate them and threatened that ‘‘he’d close the whole paper unless we took down the poster,’’ Miller wrote.
Later, the paper’s managing editor and a human resources executive arrived and the argument moved to a smaller office. Finally, an Uber was called for Block, who left with his daughter.
After Block left, Fuoco said, the union sent photos, video, and witness statements to the company, and demanded that the publisher be barred from the newsroom and ordered into treatment.
On Wednesday, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Block improperly threatened employees with termination.
But about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Block returned to the newsroom for the first time since the weekend outburst, tweeted Jonathan Silver, the union’s unit chairman.
‘‘He came in today, and it gave us pause,’’ Fuoco said. ‘‘People are frightened. There are people who are not reporting to work in the office, because they are frightened.’’
Block’s family has owned the Post-Gazette since 1927. His relationship with the newsroom has been tenuous because of editorial decisions and unfulfilled demands related to health care and raises from the union, which has stalled contract negotiations since March 2017.
The paper’s editorial pages have tilted toward supporting Trump in recent years. In January 2018, an editorial defended the president for reportedly asking, ‘‘Why are we having all these people from [expletive] countries come here?’’ during a meeting about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa. The union and a number of staff members wrote letters objecting to the piece.
In June, Block fired editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers after 25 years at the paper. Block said the firing had ‘‘little to do with politics, ideology or Donald Trump,’’ but Rogers, who was sharply critical of the president, said he’d had 19 cartoons spiked in the months before his termination.