At Chicago’s Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) affiliate, WTTW (Window to the World), two dozen broadcast technicians have been on strike since March 16 in a battle to preserve their jobs and safeguard quality media production. The walkout marks the first work stoppage in the station’s 67-year history.
The strikers — members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1220 — include camera operators, editors, graphic artists, lighting technicians and audio professionals who do the behind-the-scenes work producing local news and documentary programs for WTTW, including the nightly news broadcast Chicago Tonight. The union and management have been in contract negotiations since May of last year.
“While the world got to work from home and shelter in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, these essential workers risked their health and the health of their families daily to keep shows like Chicago Tonight on the air,” said Brett Lyons, a business representative for the union. “Management rewarded them with nearly an entire calendar year of incredibly difficult collective bargaining.”
The central issue is management’s proposed overhaul to work jurisdiction. All unionized television stations have a set jurisdiction under which only union members — working under a contract providing good wages, benefits and other protections — can shoot and edit content.
Without jurisdiction and the clear job descriptions that come with it, TV stations can get around the union contract and show content from anywhere, or anyone.
“They’re proposing to send work out-of-house,” IBEW Local 1220 business manager John Rizzo told In These Times. “They want to bring in the cheapest content they can find, put everything on-air and see what sticks.”
“We have editors here eight hours a day, often more, but management still wants to be able to hire outside editors. The only reason they could give was ‘flexibility,’” explained Evan Metz, a WTTW stagehand responsible for lighting.
Rizzo said that IBEW has won four arbitration hearings in recent years over WTTW violating the union’s jurisdiction. One example was when the station used video of a Blue Angels flight demonstration over Lake Michigan recorded by a producer from her own balcony instead of sending a unionized camera operator to shoot the footage.
This behavior not only threatens jobs, but also serves to degrade the quality of the content that gets broadcast, Rizzo said. “When you turn on TV, you have an expectation of what you’re going to watch. When you turn on PBS, because of the jurisdiction and the defined jobs and protections, you know you should be getting quality, and that’s the most important part.”
Since the strike began, Chicago Tonight has moved to showing mostly pre-recorded packages and moving from an hour-long format to a half-hour.
“They haven’t put on a full show without us yet, and what they have been able to put on has been greatly lowered quality,” Metz said. “They’re finding out that our jobs only look easy because we know what we’re doing.”
On Monday, the strikers were joined on the picket line by community allies and elected officials, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“Make no mistake: Chicago is a union town,” Lightfoot said. “As an elected official, I feel it’s our highest responsibility to make sure we’re doing everything possible to protect workers and support workers’ rights, particularly given what all workers have been through these past two years.” In January, Lightfoot locked out the Chicago Teachers Union after educators voted to hold a temporary remote work action at the height of the deadly Omicron surge of Covid-19.
“What we are seeing right now is an employer using plays from the neoliberal playbook of subcontracting and trying to eliminate positions that are vital to the functioning of an incredibly important institution in our community, and we cannot let that happen,” said democratic socialist Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez of the 33rd Ward. She asked supporters to donate to the union’s strike fund and called on other elected officials not to do interviews with the station until the strike is resolved.
Strikes by Chicago television workers are rare. According to Chicago Federation of Labor secretary-treasurer Don Villar, who also joined the picket line Monday, the last one occurred in 1998 at the local ABC affiliate. “Twenty-five years of labor peace in broadcasting here in Chicago, and it ended here at public television. That’s a shame,” Villar said.
Rizzo said that IBEW Local 1220 has represented WTTW workers since 1955, but this is the first time they’ve ever gone on strike at the station. Although television stations have been trying to weaken union jurisdiction for many years, he said he has not seen anything comparable to WTTW’s current hard line in negotiations. He attributes this to the station’s new management, including Sandra Cordova Micek, a former Hyatt executive who became WTTW’s president and CEO in 2018.
Since Micek took the helm, Rizzo says management has tried to buy out senior union members and has hired around 40 non-union employees. “They’re trying to get rid of the unit through attrition,” he said. “It’s all about reducing IBEW workers.”
WTTW management explained in a statement: “We work in a rapidly changing industry. Bringing our IBEW contract up to date — to ensure that it is comparable with other media contracts across the city and country — is imperative, will allow us to use current and future technology and will protect jobs.”
“We’re not dinosaurs,” Rizzo said. “We want to be involved in the web, in streaming. We know how to do that work, but we’re being kept away from it on purpose. We’re being phased out on purpose.”
Metz told In These Times that management has not reached out to the union to schedule another bargaining session since the strike began.
“The whole point of the station is to serve the community,” Metz said. “I find it hard to believe that they think they’re doing that in good faith by forcing us to walk out. We’re members of the community. To put us out on the street like this is antithetical to their mission.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.