At Boston’s PBS Station, Unionbusting Tactics and a Koch Connection

Kari Lydersen April 11, 2011

The acclaimed PBS doc­u­men­tary series Front­line exam­ines human rights and some­times labor rights issues around the world, includ­ing a recent piece on jailed Iran­ian jour­nal­ist Dr. Ahmad Zeidabani. 

But at WGBH, the Boston pub­lic sta­tion that pro­duces Front­line—along with Nova, Antiques Road­show and Mas­ter­piece—jour­nal­ists and oth­er employ­ees say their own rights are being tram­pled upon in a bit­ter union dis­pute that sup­port­ers fear will sap the sta­tion of its vitality.

On March 15, the same day peo­ple nation­wide were protest­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with Wis­con­sin pub­lic employ­ees, WGBH man­age­ment announced they would cut off con­tract nego­ti­a­tions ongo­ing since last fall and impose the con­tract that 280 mem­bers of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Employ­ees of the Edu­ca­tion­al Foundation/​Communications Work­ers of Amer­i­ca Local 1300, had vot­ed down days earlier.

The three-year con­tract guts the union that rep­re­sents a third of the station’s total work­force, mak­ing about half of them at-will employ­ees, giv­ing man­agers the right to fire on-air tal­ent for any rea­son with­out recourse and allow­ing the out­sourc­ing of work with­out union approval, which could mean hun­dreds of job cuts, as described by the union.

The man­age­ment plan also includes the pow­er to assign employ­ees to work across dif­fer­ent media plat­forms, which could mean sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased work­loads and give man­age­ment rea­sons to fire employ­ees who aren’t trained for the new assign­ments. Management’s con­tract also reduces the time a laid-off employ­ee has recall rights to the same job from a year to nine months, and elim­i­nates sev­er­ance pay if laid-off work­ers refuse a rehir­ing offer in a sim­i­lar job.

And management’s con­tract reduces employ­ees’ con­trol over their own sched­ules, allow­ing man­agers to force employ­ees to take unpaid leave or vaca­tion time, and elim­i­nat­ing the past guar­an­tee of two con­sec­u­tive days off each week.

Union spokesman Jor­dan Wein­stein, local host of All Things Con­sid­ered, explained the impact of management’s pro­pos­al to the Boston Globe.

It would cre­ate sec­ond-class sta­tus for half of our mem­bers, and turn them into at-will employ­ees, and it will restrict our abil­i­ty to effec­tive­ly protest our work­ing con­di­tions dur­ing the life of the contract.

The union’s con­tract expired on Oct. 31, 2010, and since then man­age­ment stopped union dues pay­roll check­off and refused to extend the con­tract while nego­ti­a­tions took place — tac­tics com­mon in attempts to bust an exist­ing union in the work­place,” accord­ing to a fact­sheet from the union. 

The station’s board of trustees includes bil­lion­aire Tea Par­ty backer David Koch, The Boston Phoenix report­ed:

Pub­lic records show that Koch, along with his broth­er Charles, gave more than $17 mil­lion over 10 years to groups that orga­nize against work­ers. They also pro­vid­ed seed mon­ey for the pri­vate sec­tor front group Amer­i­cans For Pros­per­i­ty (AFP), which is cur­rent­ly back­ing the union-bust­ing Walk­er in Wis­con­sin and com­pa­ra­ble efforts else­where. A WGBH spokesper­son tells the Phoenix that the Trustees have no involve­ment in the day to day run­ning of WGBH.

A state­ment from the union says it appre­ci­ates Koch’s finan­cial sup­port, but:

As a board mem­ber, Mr. Koch’s well-known polit­i­cal and per­son­al phi­los­o­phy should not influ­ence WGBH’s labor rela­tions poli­cies. We tru­ly hope that Mr. Koch’s seat on the board and WGBH’s aggres­sive tac­tics with our union is just a coincidence….The same right wing forces that are try­ing to bust pub­lic sec­tor unions in Wis­con­sin are at work right here in Boston try­ing to bust WGBH’s largest union.

Management’s posi­tion is sum­ma­rized on the Unit­ed for Jus­tice with Peace web­site: Jeanne Hop­kins, WGBH vice-pres­i­dent for com­mu­ni­ca­tions and gov­ern­ment rela­tions, said:

Because of the sig­nif­i­cant changes in the broad­cast indus­try, WGBH pro­posed a new con­tract reflect­ing how pro­duc­tion work is done now with dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, rather than again revise the 40-year-old con­tract. The pro­posed con­tract brings AEEF/CWA on par with the oth­er union at WGBH, NABET (the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Broad­cast Employ­ees and Technicians/​ Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca), and brings par­i­ty with non-union employ­ees on key benefits.

With­out these changes WGBH is like­ly to lose pro­duc­tion work, which means los­ing jobs. After sev­en months of good faith bar­gain­ing that includ­ed the help of a medi­a­tor, it is time to move for­ward, in the inter­ests of all WGBH employ­ees, and the pub­lic we serve. This new con­tract pro­vides wage increas­es, for the fourth con­sec­u­tive year, only for AEEF/CWA mem­bers that no oth­er union, non-union or man­age­ment employ­ees will be receiv­ing. It also offers the AEEF/CWA employ­ees flex­i­bil­i­ty to grow, and includes gen­er­ous ben­e­fits despite the dif­fi­cult eco­nom­ic times.

The union acknowl­edges that pub­lic broad­cast­ing is fac­ing fed­er­al fund­ing cuts, but warns that management’s treat­ment of the union could erode lis­ten­er sup­port. The union also object­ed to man­age­ment bonus­es of $202,000 in 2009 and to the use of dona­tions to hire anti-union consultants.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to man­age­ment pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus Mar­tin Evans, a Cam­bridge res­i­dent, argues management’s moves endan­gers the finances and qual­i­ty of the station:

WGBH is in the mid­dle of its spring fundrais­er. It is hard­ly con­ducive to cre­at­ing a favor­able impres­sion of the sta­tion when it is act­ing like the Wis­con­sin Repub­li­cans in abol­ish­ing the union dues check­off pro­ce­dures. I am sure that fundrais­ing will suf­fer. I have already with­drawn my very mod­est sup­port… Man­age­ment has alien­at­ed their pro­fes­sion­al staff by insist­ing on unlim­it­ed out­sourc­ing and on the abil­i­ty to fire employ­ees at will (instead of for cause).

They have shown dis­re­spect for their employ­ees’ union rep­re­sen­ta­tives by dis­con­tin­u­ing the col­lec­tion of union dues on behalf of the union. This is not a cul­ture in which pro­fes­sion­al employ­ees would want to work. Only the poor job mar­ket in the Unit­ed States will prob­a­bly keep many of the pro­fes­sion­als at their posts. Over time, under the new con­tract, WGBH will be hol­lowed out. What a shame.

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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