Collins | Understanding Both Sides In Labor Negotiations

Media companies and their employees’ union representatives both have an obligation to bargain in good faith. Here are some insights into what it takes for today’s media businesses to conduct successful union negotiations.

Google, the company once known for the “Don’t be evil” clause in its code of conduct, has hired a consulting firm known for its anti-union efforts. It turns out that this may be just one mile-marker on the media industry’s road to unionization. Earlier this year, Axios’ Maris Fernandez and Sara Fischer reported, “more than 30 media companies have unionized in the past two years.”

Fernandez and Fischer cite the turbulent economic climate for today’s media and entertainment companies as the primary reason for this trend. What hasn’t changed is that media companies and their employees’ union representatives both have an obligation to bargain in good faith

The Financial Manager (TFM) magazine’s Janet Stilson wanted to delve into the details that make up successful union negotiations for today’s media businesses. As she reports, finding people willing to talk about the process was no simple task. Her persistence paid off; the result is an extensive Q&A piece she called “Please Try to Understand.”

Stilson spoke with a media HR executive and a group news director, both management, along with a formerly unionized photojournalist. Each of her subjects requested anonymity. The details shared here are from the edited transcript of her conversation with the three.

Lessons Learned

The conversation begins with Stilson’s question about how one can make constructive progress when dealing with unions, and the lessons each learned in the process. Treating employees well is at the top of the list for the news director who characterizes employees as a company’s greatest asset. The news director sums it up saying: “If you treat employees well, either they don’t need a union or don’t need to rely on one, if one exists.”


The HR executive follows this with the comment that such a sentiment may sound too much like the company line, suggesting instead that it is important to know the union’s members, its leaders, and those likely to be most vocal within the organization. Noting the co-dependency of the relationship, s/he says, “Try to work with key (union) leadership and get them to buy into what you’re trying to do. And find out what they want.” In summary, “get them on your side.”

Playing Hardball

Stilson next broaches the topic of management’s decision to hold back key benefits from employees, as General Motors did when it withheld health insurance benefits from United Auto Workers’ (UAW) members during part of a recent labor action.

The HR professional suggests, without calling out GM as a bad company, that the typical company realizes “cutting off benefits can be life-threatening to employees and their families.” This executive further comments that, while a company may become frustrated in getting what they want, this type of action could be dangerous.

The photojournalist jumps in with a personal experience during which the union was playing hardball. In this case, the ability to accumulate sick days became an issue. Once the negotiations were complete, the photojournalist was eligible for seven sick days over the course of a year, down from the 30 days that could be accumulated prior to the negotiation.

According to the HR executive, these types of “enhanced benefits” are the types of things companies typically expect the union to negotiate on the employees’ behalf.

Deal Killers

What happens when the union’s request is, in Stilson’s words, “a complete deal killer”? The group news director recalls a bargaining session that hinged on the company’s vacation policy. The company offered a plan that respected “seniority in a big way,” but also included better vacation options “for some of the younger, less senior members of the union,” calling it “a fairer plan.”

Unfortunately, the union’s negotiating team, composed of very senior union members, refused to present it to their membership, because “it didn’t benefit them.” The company take away from that frustrating negotiation is that the negotiators are going to consider themselves first.

While that may not be the case in all negotiations, it certainly appears that way in this case. The HR executive believes that the hardest requests from unions are those in which the union is “asking to get more than a nonunion employee receives.” For example, it’s a difficult discussion when the union wants six weeks of vacation and the company’s maximum is five weeks. And, it’s common for both sides to “ask for way more than they know they’re ever going to get.”

The group news director agrees with the idea that it’s difficult to give union employees more than it offers others, but says such a request might be accommodated if the union is willing to “give on something else.” In the vacation scenario, perhaps they’ll relent on sick policy.

Speaking from a union member’s perspective, the photojournalist says one must realize that despite the “brotherhood” aspect of unions, negotiators are “looking out for their best interests.” He shares the story of how his company reached out to its employees to let them read the two offers and judge for themselves whether what the union was presenting was unfair. “It created,” the photojournalist says, “a lack of trust for me. I think that was a rare situation, and a very smart move by the company.”

Stilson asked the management participants whether it was common to bring union members in to explain the company’s point of view. The HR executive responded that “when things are not going well,” it is common to seek out allies.

All this goes back to that initial point of creating relationships with union members prior to going to the negotiating table. “Being that open is not common. But trying to establish relationships with people that may not think the company’s all bad is helpful.”

Changing Times

Tackling the topic of how negotiations with unions have changed, or will change, the group news director explains that changing technologies and the changing roles of employees have presented challenges within the industry. Staying up-to-date on industry trends is a priority; and unions have adapted to this new reality. “They used to insist that a person could only do one job [such as shooting news footage].”

Now, unions seem to be more flexible; they are putting their efforts into “other areas of negotiations.” The photojournalist answers that groups of people are coming together without the benefit of unionization to get issues in front of the company. He says they are more like committees, yet the company treats them much as it would treat a union.

The result is that management listens, people are happy, and that keeps unions out. He does go on to explain he made a decision to leave the union when a newly negotiated contract meant a 17% pay cut. For this photojournalist such a stand is “not anti-union.” It’s “pro-fairness.”

I also encourage you to read the sidebar to Stilson’s piece called “The Picketing Dilemma.” It recounts a situation in which the union opted to picket a station’s advertisers and then the station itself.

A digital copy of the November/December issue of MFM’s member magazine with be available on the association’s website through the end of the year.Employee benefit changes can trigger new accounting rules.

On Dec. 10, experts from EY will be presenting an Accounting Update webinar that will cover accounting changes for the coming year. Among these are new rules for film and episodic television series. Details and registration information for this, and other programs, are available on the MFM website.

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. She can be reached at [email protected] and via the association’s LinkedInTwitter or Facebook sites.

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