As a daily radio show host and Baltimore Sun columnist, it’s Dan Rodricks’ job to have an opinion on almost every subject that’s in the news. But thus far, he has been silent on one of the hottest issues in his own workplace — a union drive at Baltimore’s public radio station WYPR.
That’s a reflection of the organizing strategy of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union attempting to organize 20 to 30 hosts, reporters, producers, analysts and new media professionals at the station. Though an election was held among the workers on July 30, with votes tallied a week later, there has been little news coverage anywhere in the regional media market.
On June 3, SAG-AFTRA presented WYPR with a request for voluntary recognition of the union. In the 12 weeks since, inquiries from In These Times to SAG-AFTRA’s Los Angeles headquarters as to the specifics of the workers’ demands or the circumstances of the drive have been repeatedly brushed off. Last week, a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson responded with an abbreviated statement:
While an election was held on July 30 and the votes counted on August 5, this matter is still open due to objections filed by both sides. Until this matter is completed, we are not making any comments.
The reasons behind SAG-AFTRA’s technique of radio silence are unclear, but public information available at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) suggests one possibility: The election battle is so extremely close that it seems likely to be decided only by aggressive lawyer combat on both sides. In these kinds of cases, many lawyers often prefer that there be no press coverage that might disrupt legal strategy.
According to Jose Ortiz of the NLRB Office of Legal Counsel, the results of the election were inconclusive. Just nine workers voted for the union, he tells In These Times, and 11 voted against. But seven ballots were challenged from both sides and not counted, he continues; these ballots are considered “determinative” of the election outcome. NLRB officials are expected to schedule the hearings on how the seven ballots will be handled as early as this week. Only after that process is complete, he says, will the agency determine a final count and confirm one side or the other as the winner.
And if SAG-AFTRA is reluctant to talk publicly about the campaign, then WYPR managers are similarly reticent. Reached by telephone, station President Anthony Brandon told In These Times, “There isn’t much to say. There was an attempt to form a union and it was opposed … There should be more to report in a couple of weeks.”
But public documents available from NLRB suggest there is, in fact, more to say about the case. For example, WYPR’s listed lawyer is Laura Pierson-Scheinberg, of the law firm Jackson Lewis. The firm is known nationally as a very aggressive anti-union legal group, and has played a controversial role in countless labor-management struggles. Pierson-Scheinberg did not return several calls from In These Times seeking comment.
According to NLRB documents, Pierson-Scheinberg represented the radio station in one of its early legal maneuvers against SAG-AFTRA. Initially, both radio show host Rodricks and a second WYPR host, Sheilah Kast, were included in SAG-AFTRA’s proposed bargaining unit, meaning that they would be eligible to vote and to be represented by the union in the event of a SAG-AFTRA victory. On behalf of WYPR, however, Pierson-Scheinberg argued that Rodricks and Kast were supervisors under the definition in the National Labor Relations Act, and thus exempt from the worker protections of the law. Local NLRB officials initially agreed with Pierson-Scheinberg, ruling against the union. Higher-lever NLRB officials in Washington, D.C., then overruled that determination, and permitted Rodricks and Kast to vote; management could renew its initial challenge after the election.
It may be perfectly understandable that neither Rodricks nor Kast want to talk about the union publicly before their right to vote is resolved, offers Bill Barry, a retired union organizer and Baltimore labor activist. If either were ruled a “supervisor,” they could be subject to retaliation and would have no legal protection from the NLRB. Indeed, both turned down requests by In These Times for comment.
Less understandable, however, is SAG-AFTRA’s failure to engage WYPR-listening Baltimore residents in the union campaign, Barry continues. An appeal to listeners through wide-ranging demonstrations and a media campaign might have mobilized support for the pro-union WYPR workers, according to Barry. “Listen, I personally make [financial] contributions to WYPR, and I sure as hell don’t want my money spent so Jackson Lewis can bust the union. I’ll bet there are a fair number of listeners, and donors, who feel the same way,” he says.
Any public radio station is very sensitive to the pressures of outside opinion, and that can be a powerful tool in a union organizing campaign, Barry says. “The managers of WYPR need to back off. They depend on the goodwill of the listeners and contributors. It’s offensive that they use funds donated by listeners to hire an expensive law firm to frustrate the desire of workers for union representation, which is their right under the law.”
Public influence can indeed be a powerful force in a case like this, agrees Madelyn Elder, President of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901 in Portland, Oregon. She tells In These Times that her local was able to organize a small unit of workers at KBOO community radio, largely because Portlanders objected to the anti-union actions of the former executive director, including by contacting the station en masse and organizing a coup against her. “The listeners of a station like this tend to be passionate about governance issues.”
Because of this, she says, the union would do well to engage the public as allies on this issue. “As a manager, you can’t declare war on the staff and expect to get away with it,” she says.
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