The Santa Barbara News-Press and its owner violated federal labor laws in firing eight reporters for union activities, and the workers are entitled to return to their jobs with back pay, a judge has ruled.

The newspaper demonstrated "widespread, general disregard for the fundamental rights of the employees" and ordered the reporters reinstated with back pay, administrative law Judge William G. Kocol ruled last week.

"This decision really is all-encompassing; it's everything we wanted it to be," said Melinda Burns, the first of the reporters to be fired.

Additional local reporting from the Ventura County Star

The National Labor Relations Board had alleged in a 15-count unfair labor practices complaint that the paper fired the eight workers, who had no history of disciplinary action, only after they began to fight for union representation.

Attorneys for the newspaper and owner Wendy McCaw said they were "extremely disappointed" with the ruling, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday. The paper "will exhaust all possible appeals and fully expects to achieve justice through that appellate process. The matter as a whole is in its infancy," they said.

Messages left with McCaw's spokeswoman and attorneys Tuesday night were not immediately returned.

McCaw and other newspaper managers testified during hearings that concerns about biased reporting led to the dismissal of Burns and another employee who was let go in January 2007.

Six other reporters were fired in February after protesting the previous two firings by hanging a sign over a freeway pedestrian bridge that read "Cancel Your Newspaper Today!"

That act of disloyalty was behind those firings, managers had argued. But Kocol ruled that the hanging of the banner was a protected activity and that all eight employees were fired for their union ties.

The judge also ruled that the paper had spied on reporters' union activities, forced them to remove anti-McCaw buttons and wrongly fired a fellow supervisor. Kocol also ordered new evaluations for Anna Davison and three colleagues, who he says were given poor performance reviews and denied bonuses for their union ties.

The News-Press has been steeped in controversy since July 2006, when a dispute between McCaw and the staff spilled into public view after nearly every top editor quit to protest what they said was the owner's interference with coverage.

McCaw shot back with a front-page note to readers saying those who quit were upset that they could no longer inject their personal opinions into the newspaper.

Newsroom employees voted overwhelmingly that September to form a union. The workers and the paper have been clashing since then over the legitimacy of the vote, which was certified by the Labor Relations Board last year.

Burns said she would return to work at the News-Press despite the turmoil.

"I think that the only thing we have is to try to turn this thing around and put out a good newspaper," she said.