NPR Workers Just Showed Us Why Journalists Need to Organize

Michael Arria

Former National Security Advisor Steve Hadley (L) speaks during an interview with Robert Siegel of National Public Radio 24 October 2006 during an event for radio talk shows at the White House in Washington, D.C. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

NPR work­ers just proved that col­lec­tive action works, and — in today’s media land­scape — staff unions are more impor­tant than ever.

The Screen Actors Guild‐​American Fed­er­a­tion of Tele­vi­sion and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and Nation­al Pub­lic Radio (NPR) reached a ten­ta­tive, three-year agree­ment short­ly after mid­night on July 15, pre­vent­ing more than 400 NPR employ­ees from going on strike.

On July 14, almost 300 of these employ­ees vot­ed to request strike autho­riza­tion from the SAG-AFTRA nation­al board. Despite soar­ing pub­lic radio rat­ings in the wake of Trump’s elec­tion, the union said that NPR was insti­tut­ing a two-tier salary sys­tem, in which one group of work­ers would receive low­er pay than the oth­er. His­tor­i­cal­ly, the estab­lish­ment of two-tier union con­tracts have dealt major blows to work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty. My great­est con­cern is for the new hires who come in behind me,” tweet­ed NPR reporter Sarah McCam­mon on July 14.

An email sent from the union nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee to mem­bers of the bar­gain­ing unit on July 11 explained, Absent an 11th-hour change, the com­pa­ny is plan­ning to offer us an odi­ous con­tract. The com­pa­ny is set­ting up a bit­ter choice for us.”

Accord­ing to employ­ees, man­age­ment even float­ed the idea of gut­ting over­time pay and tak­ing away health­care cov­er­age for tem­po­rary work­ers. They are try­ing to low­er salary min­i­mums, and they are real­ly try­ing to weak­en the pow­er of the union,” NPR pro­duc­er Becky Sul­li­van said dur­ing a July inter­view. They want to write in more flex­i­bil­i­ty for out­side peo­ple to do union work and take away the union’s abil­i­ty to file a grievance.”

Dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions, some of NPR’s most pop­u­lar staff mem­bers, includ­ing All Things Con­sid­ered” host Robert Siegel, sent CEO Jarl Mohn a let­ter detail­ing the impor­tance of the union con­tract. NPR’s stature and audi­ence have grown, while most of us were serv­ing under the SAG-AFTRA con­tract,” it reads. Mem­bers of your man­age­ment team seem to believe that NPR has become the revered media com­pa­ny it is — a com­pa­ny that they boast about serv­ing — despite that con­tract. They mis­un­der­stand NPR’s his­to­ry and cul­ture: NPR has become great part­ly because of our labor-man­age­ment con­tract. The con­tract has ensured prop­er work­ing con­di­tions, col­lab­o­ra­tion and col­le­gial­i­ty, and an atmos­phere of mutu­al respect.”

Although details of the new deal have not been dis­closed, a SAG-AFTRA rep­re­sen­ta­tive said that it includes salary increas­es and effec­tive­ly repelled efforts to erode union pro­tec­tions and insti­tute a two-tiered salary system.”

Despite the often-ref­er­enced decline of orga­nized labor, news unions have been a major sto­ry over the last two years as media out­lets like Salon, Vice, MTV News, The Guardian US, Jacobin, Thril­list, Slate, and oth­ers have obtained union rep­re­sen­ta­tion. News unions are back,” wrote Gary Weiss at the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review last month, They nev­er real­ly went away, of course, but for the first time in mem­o­ry they are proac­tive rather than on the defensive.”

In addi­tion to tele­vi­sion and radio jour­nal­ists, SAG-AFTRA also rep­re­sents record­ing artists and film and the­ater per­form­ers. Accord­ing to Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca orga­niz­er Megan McRobert, the union’s bar­gain­ing on behalf of NPR employ­ees demon­strates how the very threat of a strike wields con­sid­er­able pow­er in the media world.

In many indus­tries today, includ­ing in media, work­ers feel replace­able and as if their jobs could dis­ap­pear at any day,” McRobert told In These Times. But com­pa­nies depend on labor to gen­er­ate rev­enue, which is why with­hold­ing of labor — or threat­en­ing to — remains such a pow­er­ful tool.”

When faced with a strike threat or work stop­page, image-con­scious media com­pa­nies, in par­tic­u­lar, have to con­tend with a duel threat to their brand and source of rev­enue,” McRobert con­tin­ued. Tak­ing col­lec­tive action in the work­place is a proven way to chal­lenge and change the pow­er dynam­ics of an increas­ing­ly cor­po­ra­tized media industry.”

In real­i­ty, NPR is much more cor­po­rate than many of its pro­gres­sive admir­ers believe, and it is much less lib­er­al than many of its con­ser­v­a­tive crit­ics assume. Regard­less, pub­lic broad­cast­ing is now in the Trump administration’s crosshairs. Mean­while, NPR’s right-wing detrac­tors are com­plain­ing about strong bias most com­i­cal of places, throw­ing a tantrum when NPR tweet­ed the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence. NPR has strength­ened its brand by pre­sent­ing itself as the sober, rea­son­able alter­na­tive to an unhinged polit­i­cal cli­mate, and the com­pa­ny would have found itself in a chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tion if the strike had played out.

With more than 37 mil­lion week­ly lis­ten­ers, 980 mem­ber sta­tions and an ever-grow­ing num­ber of pod­casts, the media orga­ni­za­tion would have had to scram­ble to fill spots on pop­u­lar shows like All Things Con­sid­ered” and Morn­ing Edi­tion,” whose hosts are union mem­bers. A walk­out pre­sum­ably would have seen fans upset at man­age­ment deny­ing them a valu­able pub­lic ser­vice and Trump sup­port­ers bask­ing in lib­er­al hypocrisy.

NPR work­ers were able to use their lever­age effec­tive­ly and show why jour­nal­ism unions are still so important.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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