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

Kari Lydersen

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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